If you sat in front of your TV last night in a similar fashion to the picture of Chris Collins did above, I don’t blame you.
Chicago State simply couldn’t miss. Hand in the face? Didn’t matter. Off the dribble? Splash. Several feet behind the arc? Buckets.
Meanwhile, Northwestern unraveled. If the Wildcats turned the ball over once, they had turned it over ten times. If they missed a decent look in the paint, it felt like they’d never hit another shot. Would this really be it? A team that had won seven of its first nine games and gone into the final minutes with the lead against Top 25 times in its two losses? We’ve dissected how Northwestern’s non-conference schedule left little room for error. Losing to Chicago State would be a monumental tragedy for a team that showed so much progress and promise.
But give the Cougars credit. Tracy Dildy’s squad has nothing to lose — one of two groups to lose every single conference game last season and representing a school facing a budget crisis unlike any other institution in America. Dildy is not only the head coach but the athletic director. The school, it seems, could close any day. And the players played like it, hoisting contested threes and knocking them down at an alarming rate. Fred Sims Jr. and Anthony Eaves became Steph Curry and Klay Thompson for a night, combining to go 9 of 16 from deep. Sims Jr. didn’t hit a two-point field goal all game. Eaves was 3 for 12 from three coming in.
And yet, Northwestern weathered the storm. Scottie Lindsey, who had some struggles shooting the basketball, made two game-tying buckets, ensuring that Northwestern would stay within one possession no matter what shot Chicago State would go on to hoist on the other end. Bryant McIntosh sandwiched a jumper and a three-pointer around a Vic Law three. On a night when it struggled shooting the ball, Northwestern scored 21 points in its 16 possessions after Chicago State took its first lead. That’s 1.31 points per possession, and it even includes two missed front ends of 1-and-1 situations.
This would have been, from a strictly numbers standpoint, the worst loss since Ken Pomeroy started providing his fantastic website to the world. The worst Northwestern loss in the Kenpom era (since 2002) was to New Mexico State (No. 271 in Kenpom) in 2005. Chicago State came into this contest ranked 337th and, despite the loss, left it 328th. Northwestern, meanwhile, dropped from 40th to 48th.
But you can throw numbers out the window when a team shoots the way Chicago State did. The Cougars hit 13 of 26 threes. They hit 10 of 31 twos. They hit 5 of 8 free throws. They certainly weren’t playing like the 337th best team in the nation. The game just didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Yet Northwestern needed to find a way to win. And it did. McIntosh, 1 of 7 from three up to that point, knocked down a huge one from the wing to put the hosts up four. Law showed why he’s so important as a wing scorer, knocking down a three of his own. Lindsey, trapped in the corner just over half-court found an open Sanjay Lumpkin for an easy layup against a press that given the Wildcats trouble. Gavin Skelly had some clutch finishes around the rim. Five Wildcats scored at least eight points.
Now that’s not to say this game didn’t show some worrisome signs. The Wildcats showed their vulnerability to fall into major slumps when the three isn’t falling. There’s not a ton of post scoring, and the team was out-rebounded by a significantly smaller Chicago State squad. Especially with Pardon out, the interior depth is really shaky. There’s no viable substitute for McIntosh at the point. Isiah Brown is 3 for his last 32 shots, including 0 of 10 in his two most recent games.
But in a game that at several points looked like a catastrophic loss, Northwestern found a way to win. It’s another tally in the win column. Another bad loss avoided. A resume still intact, with a chance to make a statement on Saturday night versus Dayton. That’s what matters.