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More questions than answers for Northwestern

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After playing Michigan State tough in East Lansing, Northwestern was absolutely pummeled tonight at Welsh-Ryan.

David Banks - USA TODAY Sports

Ew.

That's the first word that comes to mind when describing Northwestern's display against Michigan State on Tuesday night. Don't let the final score fool you. This wasn't one of those routine blowouts that aren't too rare, even in conference play. This was a hideous beat down. Michigan State led by 35 in the second half before taking its foot off the gas, allowing a late Northwestern spurt and a final score of 68-44.

Michigan State felt so comfortable that Tom Izzo admitted that the team "slowed down" in the second half to "try some things." That's not what you want an opposing coach to say, ever.

Northwestern has now lost 10 games in a row for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, when Kevin O'Neill was at the helm, and seemed to be a step slow for the first time this season.

Little went right for the Wildcats. But what bothered Chris Collins wasn't the x's and o's failures; it was that Northwestern didn't seem to have the energy they'd showed in previous games, no matter win nor loss.

"I didn't think we played hard enough to be worthy of winning," Collins said. "And that's disturbing."

How long ago was it that Northwestern's season was looking promising; when it was just a matter of time before this young team learned to capitalize on the opportunities it was giving itself late in games? Amazingly, it's only been a few weeks. And it's hard to believe that it was less than a month ago that this same Northwestern team took Michigan State to overtime on the road.

Yes, there have been injuries, as Nathan Taphorn continues to sit and it appears JerShon Cobb's always iffy health has taken a turn for the worse. Yes, Northwestern is young and in the inchoate stages of a rebuilding process that will, by all accounts, take multiple years. And yes, Michigan State relies on experienced upperclassmen while Northwestern is forced to trust more freshmen than any program would like to.

But none of that begins to excuse a performance that beggars description.

It's important not to jump to conclusions after one game, as Izzo reminded us--"I wouldn't judge (Chris) on this game," he said--but it's the downward momentum rather than one specific outcome that is the cause for at least some concern.

What's most disturbing for Northwestern is the apparent lack of development on both a personal and team-wide scale. Bryant McIntosh continues to leave a lot to be desired on the defensive end, Alex Olah continues to get into foul trouble and play a frustrating brand of offense, Tre Demps' shot selection is still befuddling and Vic Law is still yet to show why he was a top-70 recruit. On a more macro scale, after showing signs of improvement in games prior, Northwestern is once again struggling to get good looks on offense and to defend the three-point shot.

Even Collins, who has been so refreshingly optimistic throughout this losing streak, seemed to take this loss a bit more seriously than the previous nine.

"I'm not gonna chalk this up to just 'we had a bad night,'" he said.

Was tonight's vastly different outcome compared to the last time these two teams played a product of Michigan State's improvement or Northwestern's worsening? Either way, the answer isn't a flattering one.

Teams that Northwestern played close--Ohio State, Illinois, and, of course, Michigan State--are hitting their stride while Northwestern continues to bottom-feed. If it's a case of their improvement, then why hasn't Northwestern gotten better as well, particularly when you factor in that freshman-heavy teams usually improve as the season goes on and the young guys gain experience?

And if Northwestern is getting worse, when can we expect the Wildcats to turn the hypothetical corner?

Whenever a game plays out like this, there are more questions than answers, and that's particularly the case tonight. Any rebuilding process takes patience, and games like tonight are an ugly reality for a team that's both younger and less talented than its opponent on most nights, as was the case against Michigan State.

What's troubling is that it wasn't long ago at all that this team seemed to show signs of progress. There's still time to show that progress is indeed being made, but there was no evidence of anything but ineptitude tonight.