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Northwestern basketball...what’s going on?

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Defensive struggles and turnovers have dogged the Wildcats.

NCAA Basketball: Loyola-Maryland at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Sitting at 3-2, Northwestern finds itself with the same record it had a year ago. Yet, the team looks vastly different. The Wildcats proved themselves to be a smart and gritty group last season after a win over Texas and close losses to Butler and Notre Dame, rarely making mistakes and holding opponents to ugly shooting percentages in low-scoring affairs.

This year? Quite the contrary. Northwestern has allowed 78.4 points per game, given up 41.4 percent shooting from three-point range, and just got taken behind the woodshed by Texas Tech. The last time the Chris Collins-led Wildcats got beaten this badly was January of 2016, back when Vic Law was sitting on the sidelines and Scottie Lindsey was earning DNP-CDs.

After being projected to rank 22nd in adjusted defensive efficiency this season by KenPom, Northwestern currently ranks 74th. The Wildcats have largely disappointed on that end, and it started on opening night, when the team allowed lowly Loyola (Md.) to rack up 75 points. Losing Sanjay Lumpkin hurt the team, no doubt, but does that excuse what’s been going on through five games? Collins certainly doesn’t think so.

“That’s what college basketball’s about,” Collins said after the loss to Creighton. “You lose guys and you gotta keep it going. Do we miss Sanjay defensively? Absolutely. He was the heart and soul. He was our dirty work guy. We just gotta be better. We have enough veterans that understand what needs to be done on the defensive end.”

That may be true, but Northwestern’s starters (all returning players) haven’t played like they “understand what needs to be done on the defensive end.”

The starting lineup has allowed 44.5 percent shooting from the field and 34.9 percent from deep, compared to last year’s starters, who allowed just 40.4 and 32.3 percent, respectively. This side-by-side isn’t meant to prove that Lumpkin is a better defender than Gavin Skelly, but rather show that the Wildcats’ most experienced players haven’t exactly brought it defensively to start the season, especially considering that same five-man unit allowed just 36.7 and 29.4 percent shooting last season.

Northwestern’s shortcomings on that end are largely the reason why the team has been in so many close games. Last season, Northwestern ranked 21st in the country in opponent effective field goal percentage, per Kenpom. This year? Northwestern ranks 289th. That severe drop-off has allowed Saint Peter’s, La Salle and Loyola (Md.) to hang with the Wildcats.

Northwestern’s offense hasn’t done itself any favors, either. The Wildcats are scoring the ball at a strong rate, but turnovers—rarely an issue since Collins came to Evanston—have given the team trouble.

To get the numbers out of the way, Northwestern has more turnovers than assists through five games. The Wildcats currently rank 187th in turnover percentage, per KenPom. Last year, they finished 28th in that category.

Northwestern has been slow and sloppy with the ball. After assisting on 59.3 percent of their made field goals last season, the Wildcats have only assisted on 52.4 percent this year. The ball isn’t moving as much, and when it does, it’s getting picked off.

Take yesterday’s game for example: Texas Tech had 11 steals on Northwestern’s 17 turnovers, turning those giveaways into 29 points. It’s been an uncharacteristic season for the Wildcats in the turnover department thus far, and Collins knows they need to right the ship.

“That’s not a good recipe for us because we’re a good team and we can be a very good team, but we don’t necessarily have the kind of firepower to withstand 17 to 20 turnovers,” Collins said after the win over Saint Peter’s. “It’s something that we’re really gonna have to clean up as we move forward.”

Are these problems fixable? Of course. As Aaron Falzon solidifies himself in the rotation, the roster should become more cohesive offensively and defensively. It’s also been five games in nine days, so maybe this is just a small sample and a tired team. Collins has proven the ability to marshal his team through tough stretches before.

But right now, this season feels different. So does the team. Northwestern’s performance in the next month should clear up whether this is all noise or something greater.