It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Northwestern fans are certainly no strangers to dramatic, soul-crushing losses, but I think we might’ve forgotten exactly what they feel like for a while there.
The Creighton loss was tough because it was at home, a close game throughout, and definitely winnable, but it wasn’t heartbreaking. Northwestern played really well on offense and it was only the first loss of the season. Obviously, there was nothing dramatic about the Texas Tech loss. NU football hasn’t been defeated since October 7, and none of its three Ls were particularly close. The Clayton Thorson safety to end the Wisconsin game might’ve made you yell at your TV, but be honest, you didn’t actually think we were going to drive 98 yards in 1:05.
No, to find the last agonizing defeat for a Northwestern revenue sports team, you have to go back to last basketball season. And some might disagree with me on this, but I’m not counting the Gonzaga game. That was a brutal ending, yes, but it wasn’t a heartbreaker because the team had already come so far. After the game, the focus was on the fact that Northwestern had just wrapped up the greatest season in school history and nearly taken down a No. 1 seed. If I remember correctly, I was frustrated but more importantly, damn proud.
The last truly crushing loss was the 63-62 loss to Indiana at Assembly Hall, one game before The Pass. Northwestern weathered a 22-0 Hoosiers run and was up by 8 with just over 3 minutes left, then up by 5 with 45 seconds left. Scottie Lindsey lost his mind and fouled Thomas Bryant on a game-tying dunk, whose free throw bounced off the back rim and somehow went down. Bryant McIntosh’s half-court runner bounced off the rim as time expired. I was there, and it was so awful. I remember feeling sick. It felt like a guarantee that the once-inevitable Tournament berth had been choked away. Before that, you can go back to 2016 and the Butler and Notre Dame games.
Anyways, I’ve buried the hell out of the lede. Nine months after the collapse in Bloomington, heartbreak struck again for Northwestern fans as Tadric Jackson took advantage of a defensive miscommunication and drove to the rim for a buzzer-beating layup in the Wildcats’ 52-51 loss to Georgia Tech on Tuesday night. Because the game felt like a near must-win for resume purposes, that layup hurt. A lot. Nothing like a good reminder from the universe that we’re still alive and Northwestern is still Northwestern. Let’s get into the three things we learned from the game.
The Wildcats have dug themselves a pretty deep hole already
Northwestern’s resume isn’t pretty right now. The Cats have had three chances to pick up wins that actually mean something and they’ve gone 0 for 3 (and got boat raced in one of them). The only remaining opportunity in non-conference play is on the road against Oklahoma and freshman sensation Trae Young (28 ppg) in late December. NU has a 23 percent chance to win that game, according to KenPom. If that’s a loss, the best win from the non-con slate will be what, Valpo? Then LaSalle? That would almost certainly require at least 11 Big Ten wins and a victory in the conference tournament for Big Dance consideration. Of course, Northwestern has a lot of improving to do for that to even be a problem, but I remain cautiously optimistic that this team will turn it around. That’s what made this loss so painful. Even if NU does improve dramatically as this season progresses, the lack of a Georgia Tech win on the resume is always going to be there. The margin for error is rapidly shrinking.
Jordan Ash might, just maybe, be an answer to NU’s bench woes
Coming into this season, Jordan Ash was more or less an afterthought. With the arrival of Isiah Brown, Ash’s already slim minutes from his freshman year got even slimmer last year. Against Georgia Tech, the junior made an extremely compelling case to start seeing the floor more. With Scottie Lindsey enduring possibly his worst game ever (23 minutes, 0-for-8 shooting, 2 turnovers, lazy defense), Ash brought sorely-needed energy and hustle, especially in the second half. He hit a huge, rally-sparking three with time running out on the shot clock, and also recorded a rebound, an assist, and a steal. With Brown and Anthony Gaines really struggling, why not see if Ash can continue to provide a spark?
The offense let down a strong defensive performance
Outside of the last play of the game, when Aaron Falzon and Vic Law didn’t talk through a switch and both ended up covering the same guy, this was an encouraging game for Northwestern’s defense. Georgia Tech is a mediocre offensive team by Power-6 standards, but holding the Yellow Jackets to 50 points isn’t the same as holding Sacred Heart to 50 points. GT shot just 37 percent from the floor and turned it over 15 times. Law was great as usual on that end and in general, the effort and hustle were there for the most part. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate to the offensive end for the Wildcats. They were even worse than Georgia Tech, shooting 36 percent and scoring 0.88 points per possession. And it wasn’t just Lindsey. Pardon’s post-up game continues to be bad. B-Mac was great but inefficient. Falzon had an ugly 0 for 7 day from deep, missing several open looks that could’ve made a major difference in the game. He and Lindsey combined to go 0 for 12 from three while the rest of the team hit 5 of 11. Northwestern looked flat in its halfcourt sets for the game’s first 30 minutes, not moving the ball enough and settling for too many long jumpers. Both Georgia Tech and Texas Tech are in the top-20 in adjusted defensive efficiency, but only scoring 100 points over two games is always going to be very concerning. Hopefully the shots will start falling, the defense will stay active and the sense of urgency from the end of this game will be there all evening against Illinois on Friday, because that’s the type of game this team needs to win if it wants to turn this season around.