The plot of Monday evening’s game between Northwestern and its mid-major foe was refreshingly original. Prone to slow starts and hampered by their much-maligned ability to put away inferior opponents, the Wildcats left no doubt against Chicago State. A 23-2 run to begin the game burgeoned to a 55-8 lead, the fewest points yielded at half in program history of the shot-clock era.
In its early-season games against Loyola (Md.) and La Salle, Northwestern was outscored by nine and 16 points, respectively, in the second half. A 47-point lead at halftime on Monday evening was more than enough to put the offense on cruise control, but the Wildcats did not take their foot off the gas. Chris Collins played his starters in the second half, then he played each of his rotation players at least 16 minutes. The Chicago State run never materealized. Northwestern won the second half by 18 points to secure its largest margin of victory ever.
"We kind of refocused ourselves," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "The first five games we kind of got away from what made us good (defensively) in the past. It wasn't like our character was bad or our attitude. We had to get back to work. We had to regain our edge. We had to regain our spirit."
Chicago State is bad. The 96-31 outcome on Monday dropped them to 2-11 on the season, and 0-11 against Division-I opponents. Incredibly, the Cougars largest margin of defeat this season is a 69-point thrashing by Purdue back in November. This isn't the same Chicago State team that nearly stunned Northwestern in Welsh-Ryan Arena last year.
Collins spoke highly of his defense that held Chicago State to just 20-percent from the field. 14 of the Cougars’ 31 points came from the free-throw line. A combination of Vic Law and Anthony Gaines shut down leading scorer Fred Sims Jr., who poured in 22-points in the matchup last season. In the 2017 version of this game, Sims went 0-of-9 from the field without a single point. But it was a complete defensive effort - bolstered by 10 steals and five blocks - that led to the second fewest points given up in program history.
The offense deserves its due for putting forth the performance the lofty 27-point Vegas spread was expecting. The 96 points it scored were a season high. So were its 20 assists. Five Wildcats scored in double-digits and redshirt sophomore wing Aaron Falzon had his best game of the young season, shooting 4-of-8 from deep en route to a season-high 15 points.
“I’ve been in a little bit of a recent shooting slump so it’s always good to see the ball go in a couple times,” Falzon said. “When it went in the first time, a lot of pressure came off me and I was ready to play basketball again.”
Coming off a tough loss at Purdue, Northwestern was certainly ready to play basketball. The Cougars were severely overmatched, but also caught the well-rested Wildcats after a seven-day layoff. Monday evening was Northwestern's most complete performance of the season. Collins had his team truly locked in on both ends of the floor for the first time since the second half of its loss to Gonzaga in the Round of 32 back in March.
We know better than to take a blowout win in non-conference play as a harbinger of games to come. Just one game after last season's harrowing four-point win over Chicago State, the Wildcats earned a huge résumé-builder by beating Dayton. But that doesn't mean Northwestern isn't playing its best basketball of the season. With a must-win game against Valparaiso (8-2) looming Thursday, Monday's performance was all-important. Collins won't let his team ease up. Last night showed that.