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Northwestern lives dangerously, but keeps moving forward

This team is sometimes an affront to good basketball, but if it keeps winning it won’t matter.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Wildcats are 14-4, but they have had several stretches of games in which they have played comically bad basketball.

  • The Chicago State near-fiasco at home against one of the worst teams in the country.
  • The second half against Dayton.
  • The first 10 minutes against Michigan State.
  • The final 10 minutes against Minnesota in which Northwestern blew a 7-point lead by scoring just 8 points down the stretch.
  • The implosion in the final minute of the first half against Nebraska.

You can add the first 17 minutes against Rutgers to that list. Rutgers, no longer a farcical performance art piece masquerading as a Big Ten basketball team, came out to play. Under Steve Pikiell, formerly of Stony Brook, Rutgers has been playing harder than ever, and it nearly paid off for a fourth-ever conference win for the Scarlet Knights.

Northwestern flirted with disaster yet again on Thursday night, shooting 3-of-20 from three and going down by nine in the first half. But once again, Vic Law, Dererk Pardon and Scottie Lindsey rallied to prevent the hype train from going completely off the rails. And with the current of the state of the Big Ten, not careening off a cliff could be good enough for third in the conference.

“We had to earn it. I thought they [Rutgers] did a great job of taking us out of almost everything we wanted to do,” Chris Collins said in his postgame interview.

As with the Nebraska game, Northwestern was bailed out by Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law Jr., who combined for 37 of Northwestern’s 69 points. Law, in particular, was Northwestern’s best player despite not making a three all game. Law scored Northwestern’s first points of the game and really carried Northwestern in the second half, scoring 19 of his 23 points, hitting all nine of his free throws and also grabbing 8 rebounds.

“Vic Law was tremendous. I thought that every time we needed a play I thought Vic was the one who stepped up and made it,” Collins said.

When Law is one of the two best players that Northwestern has on the floor, as he was against Rutgers and Nebraska, Northwestern’s offense just gets so much simpler. He can shoot from anywhere on the floor, create offense with or without the ball, and really take over the game with his athleticism. Law allows Northwestern to get away from the endless spin cycle of McIntosh dribble handoffs at the top of the key and generate good shots for everyone on the floor. When Law is neutralized due to good defense or because he’s not demonstrative enough, the offense often grinds to a halt.

The other half of Northwestern’s offensive solution was Scottie Lindsey, who scored 14 points, 11 of which were in the second half. Josh Rosenblat wrote a great article on the excellent play and maturity of Scottie Lindsey, so I’ll let him explain what he brings to the table on a daily basis, but Lindsey had an effective if not efficient game at the RAC. He won’t go 1-for-7 from three every game, but he continues to make shots and give Northwestern a lift whenever it needs offense.

Northwestern’s other key player was Dererk Pardon, who withstood a beating on the glass from Deshawn Freeman, Ibrahima Diallo, Corrido Sa and C.J. Gettys (Rutgers plays four big men, for some reason). Although Northwestern allowed 21 offensive rebounds and Pardon wasn’t great in the first half, the Scarlet Knights did a fairly poor job of consistently scoring in the paint overall. Pardon really protected the rim well, recording a career-high 8 blocks while also chipping in 8 points and 11 rebounds. Against a Rutgers team that cannot hit the broad side of a barn, his paint presence in the second half was crucial. He’s looked really good in his last two games, and it will be interesting to see how the sophomore adjusts when he faces off against tougher competition down the road.

“Pardon’s long, he’s an outstanding shot blocker and he’s got good timing,” Collins said. “That was big because we had to protect our paint. That was where they were really hurting us early in the game.”

As a sidenote, burning Pardon’s redshirt last season actually seems to have been a blessing in disguise for the Wildcats. Although losing Alex Olah for stretches hampered the upside of last year’s team, it’s hard to imagine Pardon playing this confidently with only 10-15 games of experience rather than 30. Given that Law missed all of last season, giving Pardon some seasoning as a true freshman was not the worst outcome at all. Pardon, when healthy, gives this this team a reliable big man and post presence, rather than two freshmen trying to hack it in their first year in the Big Ten.

Lastly, we have to start having “that conversation” about Bryant McIntosh. I’m not going to sugarcoat it; he was awful in this game. Rutgers’ physical play in the first half really threw him off. He couldn’t finish with any consistency while driving to the basket or shoot from the perimeter. Although he had 4 assists, he also recorded 3 turnovers. The only positives from his performance were that he guarded Nigel Johnson well and Northwestern didn’t lose.

McIntosh’s effective FG percent is now 39. By comparison, Law, Lindsey, Skelly, Sanjay Lumpkin and Taphorn are all well over 50 percent in that stat. McIntosh’s offensive rating has dipped to 94.2, well below the benchmark for average-ness. Despite this, he’s still taking a quarter of the team’s shots.

You most assuredly cannot put all of Northwestern’s vast stretches of offensive ineptitude on his shoulders, but his play has been a factor. His turnovers are up. His assists are down. In the first half against Rutgers, when Northwestern needed buckets, freshman Isiah Brown stepped up with 11 first-half points, not McIntosh. I’m starting to panic. If McIntosh can’t raise his game against Rutgers, there’s something wrong.

That Northwestern is 14-4 with its preseason No. 1 player going through one of the worst stretches of his career just shows how much Lindsey, Law, Pardon and the bench mob are bringing to the table. The team still looks shaky at times, but that comes with any maturing process. Northwestern has also proven it can raise its level to compete with very good teams, and because of that, its postseason hopes are still alive. The Big Ten is thoroughly muddled from third down to 12th or 13th. Northwestern doesn’t need to play outstanding basketball to survive, as long as it keeps finding ways to win tough games and starts doing so against legitimate competition.