EVANSTON, IL — The game of basketball is and always will be a game defined by runs, and there can be no debate in identifying the run that defined this particular game.
On Thursday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Northwestern had just surged into its most commanding lead of the night against the visiting Minnesota Golden Gophers at 47-40 with 13:45 to play, when the current of the game changed with all the staggering immediacy of a plug being pulled from an outlet.
The Wildcats offensive tempo slowed to a walking pace. Their off-ball movement went from tight and sharp to loose and labored. The zip was gone from their passing. Rhythm jump-shots turned into desperation heaves.
Meanwhile, the Gophers were just kicking into gear. With a lineup of just two starters on the floor, they pressed up onto Northwestern ball handlers, alertly jumped passing lanes, and collapsed onto bewildered Northwestern post players with devastating effect. They forced turnovers, rebounded ferociously as a team, and got out in transition with golden jerseys flooding into the paint and out to the three point line in equal measure.
After Minnesota’s relentless point guard Nate Mason hounded Bryant McIntosh into his third turnover of the game, and reserve wing Akeem Springs dished to young gun Amir Coffey for an emphatic breakaway slam, the scoreboard read “Minnesota 50, Northwestern 47, 10:35.”
In just three minutes of play, a seismic shift in the energy levels of the two teams had turned the game on its head.
“That was the pivotal point in the game,” Wildcats Coach Chris Collins said after the defeat. “Our guys were really tired and [Minnesota] kept bringing the energy.”
“We had a lot of fatigue in that second half period after such a fast paced first half, which led to us not executing well,” McIntosh echoed. “We didn’t cut as sharp which forced us to take tough shots at the end of shot clocks. We run great offense but were just fatigued and didn’t run it sharp.”
For anyone who watched the game, the validity of this explanation for Northwestern’s second half shooting struggles can certainly be confirmed. But the question still must be asked; why was it Northwestern and not Minnesota who was plagued by tired legs?The Wildcats were coming off of a full week of rest after their loss at Michigan State, compared to Minnesota’s mere four days off after an overtime slugfest at Purdue. Dererk Pardon returned to the lineup for the first time in eight games, in theory adding another level of depth to the rotation.
The truth of the matter is that, in a game where the fatigue factor should have worked in the Wildcats favor, it ended up being the cause of their downfall. Why?
The answer can be found by looking towards the contributions — or rather lack thereof — of Northwestern’s role players.
So far this season before Thursday night, the Wildcats’ complementary group of Sanjay Lumpkin, Gavin Skelly, Nathan Taphorn, Barret Benson and Isiah Brown had been able to fill the supporting cast role stupendously more or less game in and game out. Night after night, they had shown the ability to put a unique combination of performances together to adequately aid the leading efforts of McIntosh, Pardon, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey. No matter who the combination of performers, the group always seemed to provide the necessary energy, shooting, ball handling, playmaking, and rim protecting ability to do their part to help their team win. Maybe it was Skelly’s relentlessness on the boards or Browns ability to get to the hoop. Maybe it was the floor-spacing Taphorn knocking down threes or Lumpkin’s surprising offensive output and impressive rebounding.
Last night was a different story, and it cost the Wildcats dearly. Lumpkin reverted to his old tentative, hesitant, painfully peripheral self on the offensive end and was limited defensively by foul trouble. Skelly found himself unable to make noise with his energy and bounce down low against an intimidating Minnesota front line, and compensated by trying to assert himself offensively on the perimeter with woeful results (0 of 6 from three). The freshmen — Benson (whose only stats were a couple of personal fouls) and Brown (whose only stats were a couple of turnovers) — floundered enough in their two minutes of action apiece to convince Collins that they were not yet up to par for a game of this magnitude.
Aside from the contributions of Taphorn (2 of 3 from the floor for five points in 15 minutes), it was a night where Northwestern’s go-to guys were truly on their own at both ends of the floor, and were asked to shoulder an unconscionable amount of the night’s workload.
They did so brilliantly in a first half where the Wildcats opened up a four point advantage. McIntosh was an efficient and dominant force both scoring and making plays and controlled the game’s overall tempo. Lindsey was active defensively and had success penetrating and dishing offensively despite his shot not falling with accustomed regularity. Law was a monster on the defensive end against both the Gophers’ perimeter and interior threats, and had his way inside offensively, getting to the line and pushing his way into double-figures by midway through the half. Pardon was a force in the pick and roll, on the glass and in the paint defensively.
However, as the unilateral effort from Northwestern’s core contributors was not a sustainable pattern of success. As the second half dragged on, the pattern was accentuated. Under the burden of breaking down an athletic stifling defense as the team’s only reliable ball-handler, McIntosh began to struggle with cramps.
Unwilling to trust Brown or the seldom-used Jordan Ash in his floor general’s stead, Collins tasked Lindsey to take on that same burden. As a result, his shot suffered further and the offense as a whole stagnated with their leading scorer in an unfamiliar role.
Under the continual strain of leading his team in all facets defensively and without the versatile Lumpkin to help him out, Law’s offensive energy faded and his heavy-legged jumpers missed further and further from the mark as the game continued.
With the out-muscled Skelly floating around the perimeter and Taphorn playing major minutes in the foul-ridden Lumpkin’s stead, Pardon, in his first game in over a month, had to bang in the interior with Minnesota’s battering rams Reggie Lynch and Bakary Konate for over 17 second half minutes. His effort was admirable, but his legs understandably faded down the stretch.
Northwestern’s second half was not just a case of bad luck and missed jumpers. It was a case of their primary players being asked to do far too much, and being driven into the ground as a result. Basketball teams have 12 players on their roster for a reason. If fatigue were not a large factor in the way the game is played, most starting lineups would play all 40 minutes and that would be that. However, especially in a hyper-physical, hyper-athletic, hard-nosed conference like the Big Ten, players need to be given breaks to save their legs. More importantly, when a coach gives them said breaks, he needs to be able to trust and rely on his bench and role players to do their jobs in their stead.
In Thursday night’s loss, Collins did not have that luxury with his Wildcats team. Without reliable alternatives to turn to throughout the game, he was forced to pray that he could ride his stars to the finish line before they wilted under the weight of responsibility. His prayers were not answered, and that is why Northwestern is now in an all too familiar hole in Big Ten play that history would suggest they will not dig themselves out of.