On paper, Northwestern's non-conference slate looks about as pretty as anyone could have foreseen. A lone loss to a top-ten team in North Carolina is the only blemish on the Wildcats 12-1 non-conference record, the program's best mark since the 1930s.
The arrow for this team should be pointing up, right? Northwestern should have very realistic hopes of making the program's first NCAA Tournament, right?
Not so fast. Those hopes took a slight hit even ahead of Northwestern's 74-59 win over Loyola (Maryland) on Sunday night and, for almost 30 minutes, almost took a near-lethal hit.
Before tip, Northwestern announced that its senior center Alex Olah was out "indefinitely" with a stress fracture in his left foot. Big Ten Network reported that the team expects Olah to be out at least a couple weeks. Collins confirmed that after the game. Olah had averaged over 17 points per game since his season was rejuvenated five games ago.
In the first half against Loyola, the Wildcats had trouble adjusting to Olah's absence. Without a post presence to throw the ball into, Northwestern had difficulties getting the ball into the paint. Point guard Bryant McIntosh eventually took it upon himself to manufacture points for the Wildcats, finishing the half with 12 points. As a team Northwestern made just seven shots on 20 attempts in the first half, entering the intermission down 33-22 to the previously 1-9 Greyhounds.
The second half was a different story. Center Joey van Zegeren, who had missed the last couple of weeks with his own foot injury returned to action and, after a rough start, brought the energy and aggressive play he usually contributes. The senior finished with six points and five boards in 17 minutes. The Wildcats also got contributions from freshman big man Dererk Pardon, who planned to redshirt this year before being forced into action as a result of Olah's injury.
But the real story of night was McIntosh. Sensing his team needed a boost, McIntosh's nice first-half play improved in the second. The sophomore gave Northwestern its first lead of the contest at 44-42 on a jumper with 11:47 left in the game. McIntosh finished with a career-high 33 points, along with eight assists.
Scottie Lindsey also added 14 points with three three-pointers. It was Lindsey's first game in double-figures since his 26-point outburst against New Orleans on Nov. 28.
After struggling to score in the lane in the first half, Northwestern also picked it up in that area in the second half. Even without Olah, Northwestern managed 38 points in the paint. McIntosh's ability to knife into the lane and score contested layups was a big part of that.
Northwestern now sets its sights on Big Ten play, with its first matchup coming Wednesday at Nebraska.