IOWA CITY, Ia. — After his team gave up 42 points in the first half, Chris Collins knew he had to change something. With the Wildcats down 16 — and Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff by himself only trailing Northwestern by seven points — the visitors went to something that they haven't used for more than a minute or two since early in the season: straight man-to-man. Not a 2-3. Not the "chameleon" match-up zone that's been implemented for most of this season. Straight up, good old, man-to-man defense.
"We were trying to matchup more because I thought we weren't talking as well and we were losing guys," head coach Chris Collins said. "We were in more of a switching man just to try to be accountable for guys a little bit better."
Consider that goal unachieved. Neither the match-up zone nor the man-to-man could stop the relentless attack of the No. 3 Iowa Hawkeyes, whose stars, Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok, sliced through and shot over both defensive schemes for a combined 49 points en route to an 85-71 victory over the Wildcats in a game that was hardly as close as the final score indicated. And even when those two weren't scoring at will, the focus they commanded opened lanes for a host of supporting players.
In the first half, it was Uthoff who tortured Northwestern's helpless zone. The senior, who has taken off this season, was averaging 18.4 points per game. He had 19 by halftime on 7-of-11 field goal shooting, including three three-pointers.
"He's a special player, a unique player, a tough guy to guard and can hurt you in a bunch of different ways," Collins said.
But it wasn't just Uthoff in the first half. Even though the Hawkeyes only knocked down four three-pointers in the opening ten minutes, the threat of Uthoff and Jok stretched the zone enough for Northwestern's players to be out of position for rebounds. The Hawkeyes collected seven offensive rebounds and 16 second-chance points in the first half alone, racing out to a 42-26 lead.
Late in the first half and into the second, Collins tried to remedy that by going with the man-to-man. Consider the improvement on the glass — still six offensive rebounds allowed but only six second-chance points given up — a small victory. Consider everything else about the half a wash defensively.
The Wildcats were clearly outmatched physically in the man-to-man, which was the reason they had gone away from it in the first place. And Jok took full advantage of that. Northwestern looked out of place, often struggled to stay with shooters, and couldn't stop dribblers from getting to the basket. Jok and Dom Uhl shot an astounding 20 free throws combined in the second half alone.
"We loved it," Jok said about Northwestern's switch from the zone to the man. "We was kind of standing in the first half in the zone. When they switched to man we had more opportunities to take them one-on-one."
The Sudanese junior left with 10:38 remaining to a standing ovation. He scored 22 points in the 9:22 he played in second half alone and finished with 26 overall on an uber-efficient 6-of-10 night from the field. He also got to the line 12 times and made 10 of them.
"He had those two back-to-back threes he hit," Collins said. The first of those came off a Northwestern dead-ball turnover. "With a really good shooter, it only takes one shot, and that was the one. He saw that go in, and than all of the sudden his eyes lit up because that's the kind of shooter and scorer he is, and then he made another one and then he made a couple really good drives."
Forty-two Hawkeye points in the first, with 19 coming from Uthoff. Forty-three in the second, with 22 coming from Jok. No matter what Northwestern did, it couldn't stop Iowa's star players. And it hasn't been able to stop star players during this losing streak: Denzel Valentine had 19, Yogi Ferrell 17, Melo Trimble 18, and Brandon Taylor 19. It's no coincidence that Northwestern hasn't won in nearly three weeks.
According to Collins, "Uthoff and Jok were the two guys we really wanted to be with at all times. If you're gonna be competitive with a really good team, you can't let two of the top five scorers in the league combine for 50 points on you."
But they did, and neither even had to play over 30 minutes to do it. Iowa might have gone for 90 had Fran McCaffrey not removed his stars with considerable, if meaningless, time left in the game.
And now Northwestern's defense has surrendered at least 75 points in each of its past three games. Collins tried to introduce a quick fix against an explosive Iowa team, and it failed to turn the game around. Perhaps even Collins doesn't know where to go from here. Regardless, Northwestern has to find a way to get stops somehow, or else this five-game losing streak could stretch on, creating a very long closing half of the season.