In the end, I’m not sure we learned too much from Northwestern’s loss to Nebraska Tuesday night at Allstate Arena. Chris Collins’ squad played badly, which it has done on numerous occasions this season. Those who’ve watched this squad have seen some abysmal basketball, and a half like the second half we saw against Nebraska wasn’t surprising. The Wildcats were always going to be in trouble if a) their top three scorers on the floor combined to shoot 30 percent from the field, b) Gavin Skelly and Aaron Falzon managed only 35 combined minutes due to foul trouble and c) the team lacked defensive intensity in crunch time.
“They probably haven’t shot 29 percent in a long time,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said. He’s wrong. The Wildcats shot 26.7 percent from the field against Texas Tech in November.
Without Bryant McIntosh, the Wildcats (10-6, 1-2 B1G) are not going to win conference games. The senior is simply too valuable to the offense; without their starting point guard the Wildcats struggle to penetrate the defense and generate gravity on the perimeter that allows for ball reversals and back cuts. In 28 minutes, backup Jordan Ash was able to bring the ball up, initiate the offense, and play solid defense, but lacks the dynamic playmaking ability that McIntosh possesses.
McIntosh’s absence, however, is not an excuse for Northwestern’s 70-55 loss. The offense was bound to struggle without its leader. The defensive collapse down the stretch however, where Nebraska scored on 11 of its final 12 possession, is harder to explain. The Huskers made some tough shots, but it wasn’t like Nebraska was nailing H-O-R-S-E shots over the final eight minutes. Even head coach Chris Collins himself didn’t know what happened defensively:
On Nebraska getting to the rim late: "We had played such good on-call defense all game. I don't know if it was fatigue, or we just broke down."— Inside NU (@insidenu) January 3, 2018
Northwestern was in a position to win the game at the eight minute mark of the second half. Yet after a Pardon jumper pulled the Wildcats within one, Nebraska went on a 27-13 run to close the game. As soon as Scottie Lindsey fouled Anton Gill while the senior nailed a three-pointer, Northwestern’s defense collapsed. Following the four-point play, Northwestern got one stop in Nebraska’s final 12 possessions to close out the game. By the time Falzon, Northwestern’s most efficient scorer that night, fouled out with 2:48 to go, the Wildcats were cooked. It was a confusing conclusion to the game from an experienced Northwestern lineup.
On Big Ten Network, Brian Anderson and Jon Crispin discussed the effect that the loss of McIntosh’s leadership had on Northwestern’s play down the stretch as the camera panned to the forlorn guard in street clothes on the bench. In reality, Nebraska executed and made shots when it counted, and Northwestern did not. With the game in reach, the Wildcats lost focus defensively and let the game slip away. With or without McIntosh, this situation has happened repeatedly throughout the season, which is why Northwestern is now scraping the bottom of the Big Ten.
Collins had a veritable offensive game plan— pound the ball inside with Nebraska-killer Dererk Pardon and when that didn’t work, let Lindsey and Vic Law go to work in the pick-and-roll and on the baseline. The plan worked well enough in the first half as Pardon tallied eight points and eight rebounds, but the junior struggled with Nebraska’s length as the game wore on, finishing 6-of-18 from the field and missing several shots around the rim. Add in poor shooting nights from Lindsey and Law, and the trio that probably needed to score 50 points for Northwestern to have a shot at winning combined for 37 points on 13-of-43 shooting. Nothing was falling.
Hopefully, McIntosh will return soon and the Wildcats won’t have to resort to isolation play to get buckets. Undoubtedly, Northwestern will make more open shots than they did Tuesday night. Northwestern can’t control McIntosh’s health, or to a certain degree, whether their shots fall on any given night. They can however, control their intensity on the other half of the court. Should Tuesday night’s late-game performance keep up, the Wildcats are in for a long conference schedule.