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In losing Scottie Lindsey, Northwestern’s fatal flaw has been revealed

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This team, as presently constituted, simply doesn’t have the depth to legitimately contend come spring.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

With 23.2 seconds remaining in Northwestern’s 68-61 loss to Illinois on Tuesday, Scottie Lindsey sat on the bench, a Gatorade towel shrouding half his face, clad not in the Wildcats’ deep purple game uniforms, but a white button down and purple tie. He could only watch helplessly from the sidelines as Bryant McIntosh flung the ensuing inbounds pass into a crowd of orange jerseys, committing his sixth turnover of the game and sealing the home side’s fate in the process.

So, how did we get here? In a week’s time this team has gone from their first top-25 appearance in nearly a decade, riding a wave of momentum towards their first ever NCAA Tournament berth, to an upset loss at the hands of beaten-down rival Illinois, the Wildcats’ worst loss to date.

The answer is, of course, obvious: the loss of Lindsey.

When it was reported that Lindsey was to miss time due to illness just over a week ago, Northwestern not only lost its leading scorer, but also reliable three-point shooting and length on the perimeter to throw at the Big Ten’s most dynamic playmakers. With Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland all on the horizon, the setback could not have come at a worse time for Chris Collins’ squad.

The Wildcats’ first game sans Lindsey was nothing short of a destruction at the hands of Purdue. The visitors’ defense was discombobulated and the offense stagnated completely without the junior guard. But that loss was an easy one to dismiss. Without one of its top performers, Northwestern stumbled on the road against a markedly superior team. Collins left the game urging his team not to overreact. “It’s not an excuse,” he said in reference to Lindsey’s absence post-game.

A loss at home to Illinois, though, is cause for concern. And it’s perfectly rational to attribute much of this defeat to the loss of Lindsey; Northwestern allowed Purdue and Illinois to shoot 52.2 percent and 42.1 percent respectively from three-point range without Lindsey, a significant uptick from the 31.8 percent average the Wildcat defense has allowed for the season. In the two games since he was ruled out, the team’s field goal percentage is down. Assists are down. Turnovers are up. Lindsey had become a great scorer, yes, but his all-around development is sorely missed.

But beyond the immediate consequences of Lindsey’s illness, him being out has revealed perhaps Northwestern’s greatest weakness: their depth (or lack thereof), especially in the backcourt.

The idea of a Bryant McIntosh-Isiah Brown backcourt was fun in theory, but as they register more and more minutes together, it’s becoming apparent that the pieces are simply mismatched. McIntosh and Brown are two guards that need the ball in their hands to maximize their impact, and the offense looks clunky with the two of them attempting to share the rock for spurts at a time. The two combined for nine of Northwestern’s 14 turnovers against Illinois and size-wise they struggle to match up defensively with teams the way McIntosh and Lindsey were able to.

There was a lot of talk of simply “not making shots” after the game, but the team as a whole registered only 10 assists on the evening. That would be a season low if the ’Cats hadn’t managed to dish out only eight dimes in getting routed at Purdue. That’s a symptom of a fragmented offense.

The dominos continue to fall from there. Northwestern’s bench yearns for playmaking with Brown slotted into a starting role and a bump in minutes for Gavin Skelly and Sanjay Lumpkin, despite being great energy guys, spells danger for Northwestern’s perimeter defense (as documented by our Isaac Bushnell following the Purdue loss). Jordan Ash saw one minute of game action against Illinois and failed to make an impact.

For now, Collins has seven legitimate bodies he can turn to without Lindsey: McIntosh, Brown, Vic Law, Lumpkin, Dererk Pardon, Skelly and Nathan Taphorn. That doesn’t look awful on paper, but against Illinois it became noticeably apparent that the onus to score would fall almost entirely on McIntosh and Law until Lindsey returns.

Both were up to the task for most of the contest. After missing his first eight shots, McIntosh finished 8 of 20 with 21 points and 4 assists. His midrange jumper caught fire in the second half — over one stretch he hit eight of 10 shots — and he was the primary reason this game was even competitive. Law registered 16 points and 9 rebounds, ignited Welsh-Ryan with a thunderous transition dunk to open the game and hit a crucial three to put Northwestern up 59-56 with 3:31 remaining in the game.

But as quickly as it appeared Northwestern might pull away, things fell apart. In front of a raucous home crowd, the Wildcats committed five turnovers in the final three minutes (four of those via McIntosh) and were outscored 12-2 over that stretch. The aforementioned Law three was Northwestern’s final made field goal of the contest.

They were sloppy, but above all, they were gassed. Collins alluded to this postgame. “There’s a lot on him now,” he said of McIntosh. “I thought he played admirably. I’m sure there was some fatigue involved at the end.”

The good news is, new reports indicate that Lindsey expects to return soon and as far as their tournament candidacy is concerned, if, with Lindsey back, Northwestern can return to past form, these two losses may ultimately not prove to be damning down the road. But that’s a big “if.”

There’s a lot to learn from situations such as this, as well, especially for younger players seeing their first shot at legitimate playing time. Stretches like this are crucial for the development of guys like Isiah Brown. But in terms of expectation, Northwestern is far past the point of moral victories. Superb player development (i.e. McIntosh, Pardon, Lindsey) is what got NU to this point. Now it’s time to win.

“Tonight wasn’t a great night,” Collins said postgame in what might be the understatement of the season.

But the Wildcats will have an opportunity to right the ship, albeit a challenging one, when they travel to Madison on Sunday to take on the Big-Ten leading Wisconsin Badgers. There just simply aren’t a wealth of immediate answers for their lack of depth. Northwestern will simply have to scratch and claw with its seven-deep squad and hope to either pull out a colossal upset victory in Madison or put together a performance to build on for the future.

And pray for Lindsey’s return as soon as possible.