IOWA CITY, Iowa —Bryant McIntosh's hands fell to his knees. Chris Collins looked beyond exasperated. For the third game in a row, Northwestern was completely outmanned and overmatched, and the Wildcats fell to the No. 3 Iowa Hawkeyes, 85-71.
The game started out in familiar fashion on one end. Northwestern's defense, as it was against both Indiana and Michigan State, was abysmal. Jarrod Uthoff, one of the nation's best offensive players and best shooters, attempted 8 shots in the game's first 8:14, and not a single one of them was forced. Five of them were threes. However, Uthoff and his teammates missed some open shots early, Northwestern's offense looked fluid, and the Wildcats took an 18-14 lead on a Tre Demps three.
After Iowa's initial cold spell though, the Hawkeyes started to hit. Uthoff drained two threes, one from NBA range, and then Peter Jok was money from the left wing to give Iowa its first lead, 21-18. Jok's three compelled Collins to take a timeout, and he strode straight to Nate Taphorn and got in the junior's face. He then turned away, exasperated, and almost appeared to be on the verge of tears.
The timeout didn't stem the tide though. Iowa scored seven-straight points after the timeout to take a 28-18 lead. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery went to a zone press that incorporated traps, and then fell back into a 2-3 zone. Iowa's length bothered the Wildcats, and Northwestern went six-and-a-half minutes scoreless.
With Iowa getting open looks possession after possession, Chris Collins went to a more traditional man-to-man defense late in the first half. The Wildcats actually tightened up defensively in man despite multiple mismatches, but their inability to score allowed Iowa to gradually extend the lead. Five points from Uthoff in the final 1:09 of the half gave the hosts a 42-26 halftime lead.
Northwestern's defense, still in man-to-man, stayed somewhat taut after the break. The Wildcats played with active hands, pushed the pace off a miss, and a Tre Demps three brought them back within 9. A clapping Collins greeted his players as they jogged towards the bench at the under-16 timeout.
Iowa proved to be too much for Northwestern though. Peter Jok punished a few Wildcat defensive lapses with three-pointers. The talented Hawkeye wing at one point scored 14 straight Iowa points. His free throws following a Scottie Lindsey technical foul put Iowa up 20, 60-40.
While Jok was scoring, Northwestern had continued to have trouble with Iowa's trapping defense. With Jok, Uthoff or Nicholas Baer at the head of it, Northwestern often took all of the allotted 10 seconds to advance the ball past midcourt, and then another 5 or 10 seconds to actually get into its offense. The Hawkeyes also hounded McIntosh and Demps into turnovers.
Iowa ended up running away with the game. McCaffery pulled Jok, who scored 26 points, with over 10 minutes remaining. The Hawkeyes led by as many as 29, although a late charge by Northwestern's reserves made the final score, 85-71, somewhat deceiving. This was an overwhelming Iowa performance, especially in the second half.
Northwestern's offense did look better...
Chris Collins' public narrative after Northwestern's recent losses has been that the Wildcats have been missing open shots. That was an over-simplification of NU's offensive struggles. The quality of Northwestern's shots has gone way down over the past several weeks. But in the opening eight minutes Sunday, Northwestern's offense looked smooth and efficient. It got those open looks that Collins said it had been getting all along, and knocked down a good amount of them.
After the opening 8 minutes though, the Wildcats went cold. While Iowa stayed in man, the somewhat open looks continued to come, but Northwestern began to miss them. Aaron Falzon didn't make a single one of his eight shots, and a few of those misses came here. During a mid-first-half stretch in which NU didn't score for 6-and-a-half minutes, the Wildcats still got the occasional good look.
... but then Iowa went to zone
The Hawkeyes went to what looked like a fairly basic 1-2-2 three-quarter-court press that would fall back into a 2-3 zone when Northwestern broke it. But the Wildcats had a lot of trouble breaking it. It wasn't that NU turned the ball over at a high rate, but the traps took the offense out of its rhythm. Nate Taphorn, Sanjay Lumpkin and Aaron Falzon particularly struggled when forced to catch the ball just beyond half court.
The zone wore McIntosh down. The sophomore guard looked gassed with over 10 minutes remaining in the game. On multiple occasions he tugged at his shirt, the signal to the coaching staff that he needed to come out of the game. Whenever McIntosh looked to push the pace off a made or missed basket, he had multiple Iowa defenders running at him, and Northwestern's offense suffered.
Is this the end of the Chameleon?
Northwestern's defense was pathetic for the first 16 minutes of this game. The stats won't show it because Iowa uncharacteristically missed open shots, but Northwestern's rotations were out of whack. Communication was poor. The Wildcats, possession after possession, lost shooters in the corners or on the wings.
At about the three-minute mark of the first half though, Northwestern switched to a man. Collins gave up on his man/zone hybrid defense that had been briefly successful, and for which the Hawkeyes had likely prepared. The man-to-man was more effective at first, but then Iowa's athleticism proved to be too much for the Wildcats. We'll see if Collins gives up on the awkward matchup zone for good, or if it makes a return against Minnesota next week.
The one major positive from the game was the play of Tre Demps. The senior, who had been in a rut save for the Indiana game, scored a career-high 30 points on 11-for-22 shooting. It's not an outstanding percentage, but Demps hit 6 threes and generally looked aggressive and potent with the ball in his hands.