EVANSTON — Before the 2015-16 season even started, the Northwestern Wildcats were dealt a major blow when starting small forward Vic Law underwent season-ending shoulder surgery that would keep him off the court for his sophomore campaign. But Chris Collins' team was able to withstand that loss during non-conference play, winning 11 of its first 12 games against mostly subpar competition.
Then, after a 103-67 win over Sacred Heart on December 21st, it was announced that senior center Alex Olah would be out indefinitely with a foot injury.
Olah's absence has really been felt in the last two defeats, especially Wednesday's 65-56 defeat to the Ohio State Buckeyes, in which Northwestern shot just 31.3 percent from the field (21-of-67) and 24 percent from three (6-of-25). Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps both played poorly, combining for 22 points on 8-for-32 shooting, as they had to shoulder the majority of the offensive responsibility for a team without its best post player.
"It's hard to loosen up a defense when you can't drop the ball into the post," Chris Collins said after the loss. "There's a lot of pressure right now on Bryant and Tre, teams are forcing them to make plays... We need to find some points from other guys."
Freshman center Dererk Pardon added 9 points (and 14 rebounds) while Aaron Falzon scored 8 points on 3-of-11 shooting. Joey van Zegeren also contributed 7 points to the effort. But, with Demps (3-of-17 from the field) shooting very poorly for the second game in a row, the ball was in McIntosh's hands for much of the second half as he was forced to try and make plays against an athletic Ohio State backcourt that, in his words, wore him down.
"No question, you take a beating [when you play such a physical team]," McIntosh said about the tough style of play Ohio State enforced on the game. "Sometimes they were picking me up full court... We just have to do a good job of having Tre bring it up once in awhile to relieve the pressure off me."
McIntosh played essentially the entire game, save for the meaningless final 30 seconds with the game out of reach. It was his fourth-straight game of 37 minutes or more.
In the post-game press conference, McIntosh, who had six assists but also committed half of Northwestern's 10 turnovers, looked as exhausted and physically and mentally drained as he implied with his quotes. He was forced to almost singlehandedly lead the Wildcats' offensive attack down the stretch, and it tired him out since none of his teammates were able to step up and make shots.
"Toward the end of the game, I think I pressed a little bit," McIntosh admitted. "They were putting the ball in my hands, asking me to do something, and I was doing the best I could... Without Olah, it's tough. Tre and I are asked to do a little more in terms of scoring."
But Chris Collins, in his remarks, focused more on the struggles of his senior, Demps, who, for the second consecutive game, didn't record an assist. He said that in addition to missing a number of "open looks from three," Demps could have looked to pass more and set his teammates up for high-percentage shot attempts.
"I think there were some times when Tre could have gotten guys some shots," Collins said, mentioning how when shot-first players like Demps can't get their shots to fall, they need to help move the ball around. "He's a scorer who's struggling to score."
It's clear Northwestern, which has at times run its offense through Olah in the post for the last couple of years, is a team that desperately needs Demps to become more of a shot-creator than a shot-taker. So far this season, Demps is shooting four percentage points worse on two-pointers and over five percentage points worse on three-pointers than he did last season, while increasing his minutes by nine percent. Also, his offensive rating through three conference games is 76.1. That's not going to cut it.
Both McIntosh and Demps need to redefine themselves without Olah as the constant force in the middle. As Collins and McIntosh said after yesterday's game, opposing defenses will be putting more pressure on Northwestern's two key guards to force them to make plays. On Wednesday, they wilted under that pressure, and their teammates didn't help them out. How they respond this weekend in Minnesota, and going forward, will determine how this team fares in the Big Ten.