Northwestern women's basketball came up empty in its trip to East Lansing, as No. 23 Michigan State defeated the Wildcats 74-51. The game was not close after the first quarter, as Michigan State's defense shut down Northwestern and the Wildcats' defense could not stop Michigan State whatsoever.
Michigan State (12-3, 3-1) took the lead from the outset as the Spartans opened with a 6-0 run to start. Northwestern (12-4, 1-3) was able to respond with a smaller lineup and ended the first quarter down 4. However, Northwestern went cold in the second quarter as Michigan State's defense clamped down. Northwestern scored just 9 points in the quarter and Michigan State went into halftime with an 18 point lead. Maggie Lyon did not hit a shot and Northwestern went 1 for 15 from three in the first half.
The second half started well for Northwestern as it went on an 8-0 run and cut the lead to 10 points. But after a Michigan State timeout, Northwestern's interior defense faltered and Michigan State built a 23-point lead and cruised to victory. Michigan State shot 42.6 percent from the field and outrebounded Northwestern 50 to 40. Aerial Powers led Michigan State with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Branndeis Agee added 14 points, including 10 in the first quarter.
Northwestern falls to 12-4 and 1-3 in the Big Ten. Northwestern faces a tough test in its next game as No. 5 Ohio State takes on Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Is Northwestern still an NCAA Tournament team?
This has quickly turned into a legitimate query. Northwestern entered this week No. 16 in the country and placed as a No. 4 seed in ESPN's bracketology. Then Northwestern sustained a bad home loss to Purdue. And now, after an embarrassing loss Michigan State and a 1-3 start to Big Ten play, Northwestern's tournament hopes have drastically changed. There's a good chance Northwestern will not be ranked in the next AP Poll, and its hopes for at-large bid are in danger given how the team has played.
Northwestern's nonconference schedule was extremely weak, and the Wildcats lost at home to their only legitimate opponent, No. 16 DePaul. Its best win was on the road against a North Carolina team that probably won't make the Tournament. Northwestern had to play well in the Big Ten to make up for its soft nonconference schedule, and that simply has not happened. Northwestern's loss to a very good Michigan State team on the road isn't a death blow to Northwestern's hopes, but given the way the team has played recently, the future looks very daunting for the Wildcats. Next week, Northwestern faces Ohio State and Maryland, both top ten teams.
If Northwestern fails to come up with a victory next week (a very likely scenario), Northwestern will be 12-6. Assuming Northwestern needs to win at least 21 games to make the tournament, the team will have to go at least 9-3 in its last 12 games to reach the target. That stretch of 12 games includes another two games against Ohio State and Maryland. Right now, Northwestern's RPI is not very impressive. This two-game losing streak has made turned them from a tournament lock to a bubble team.
Lack of depth hurting the Wildcats, but no easy solution in sight
But why is the team playing so poorly? The most obvious answer is that Northwestern has no depth on its roster at the moment. Maggie Lyon, Nia Coffey, Christen Inman, and Ashley Deary were the only Northwestern players to score until late in the fourth quarter against Michigan State. Northwestern coach Joe McKeown has not elected to rotate his squad, and the four starters looked exhausted in the second half against Michigan State. The effort on the boards and on defense dropped off in the second half against Purdue and Michigan State, a sign that the four starters are tiring out.
However, it's not like McKeown has any other options. In women's basketball, depth is not as important as you might think. Plenty of good teams, including Ohio State and Maryland, have multiple starters play the entire game, and it's easy to forget that Northwestern had a very successful season last year with similar minutes being played by its starters. Northwestern's bench players cannot really hold their own in Big Ten play, and McKeown has a much better chance of winning with his starters on the floor, no matter how tired or off they might be. Without Lauren Douglas, Northwestern's lack of depth will be a problem for the rest of the year.
Diagnosing Northwestern's offensive issues
Purdue and Michigan State both had similar gameplans on defense: make Northwestern become a jumpshooting team. With Northwestern playing such a small lineup on most occasions and the bench offering little production, Michigan State was able to force Northwestern to take a bunch of perimeter shots. In Big Ten play, Nia Coffey cannot just dominate opposing players in the post, leaving Northwestern completely dependent on outside shooting. Unfortunately, Northwestern's outside shooting has been off in its last two games. Northwestern was an astounding 3 for 26 on three pointers against Michigan State.
While bombing three-pointers can be an effective strategy for some teams, Northwestern does not have the outside shooting to pull it off. Maggie Lyon is the only above-average three-point shooter on the team, but she has been on a shooting slump since the start of Big Ten play. In Big Ten play, she's shooting 32.8 percent from the field and 28 percent from three, well below her career averages. Right now, Northwestern's offense has become very easy to defend.