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Recapping the Wooden Legacy, and looking ahead for Northwestern Men’s Basketball

The Wildcats left California on a high-note, beating Pac-12 opponent Utah 79-57.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Penn State vs Northwestern Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

While most students travelled home to see their families over Thanksgiving break, the men’s basketball team travelled to Fullerton, Calif. to participate in the Wooden Legacy tournament.

The Wildcats got punched in the mouth in their first game by Fresno State (3-2), losing 78-59. The NU offense was brutally stagnant, and the Wildcats did not match Fresno’s intensity. Vic Law paced the team with 13 points, and Dererk Pardon added 11 points and 7 rebounds. Don’t let Pardon’s numbers fool you, though. Fresno State’s pressure forced to Cats to initiate their offense far away from the basket, and they struggled to feed Pardon as a result.

It’s easy to let a poor performance affect the next game in a back-to-back, but the team didn’t let that happen, though the subsequent opponent was a weak one. Northwestern bounced back the next day and thumped the La Salle Explorers (0-7) 91-74. While this was expected as La Salle is pretty bad, it was good to see them get up and fight after being knocked down the night before.

The Cats continued this upward trend after having a day off to regroup. They handled the Utah Utes (3-3) 79-57. Northwestern’s mediocre non-conference schedule doesn’t provide much opportunity for resume building wins, so winning this game was huge. The Wildcats forced 21 turnovers and outscored the Utes 51-33 in the second half. They were exceptional from three (10-of-21) and shot 63 percent from the field.

Despite their slow start, NU’s performance at the end of the tournament was encouraging. They showed resiliency and saved their most impressive game for last. That wasn’t a cupcake game either, as it was Northwestern’s first win against a Pac-12 opponent since 2009.

The Fresno State loss was pretty disappointing, though, and the lack of a true point guard showed. Northwestern needed someone to break the Fresno defense down off the dribble, and nobody could really do it. Vic Law and Ryan Taylor are probably the players that need to do that, but that’s not their games (even if it might have to be).

It’s curious that Pardon didn’t get more touches throughout the weekend — he’s consistently NU’s most efficient offensive player, and he’s shown the ability to make decisive moves in the post. Collins has said Pardon is one of the premier bigs in the Big Ten, so it’s a bit surprising he isn’t used like one.

Now, the Wildcats will look to continue to ride its wave of success into their game against Georgia Tech (3-1) on Wednesday night in the Big Ten/ACC challenge. It will be interesting to see how the team uses the home crowd to its advantage, as this is their first game against a high major opponent in the new arena.

This is a critical stretch of games for NU, as it will begin Big Ten play Saturday against Indiana in Bloomington, followed by a home date with Michigan. It’s still early in the season, but the Georgia Tech game seems like a must win with those two games afterward.

Realistically, the Big Ten is what was going to determine NU’s fate this season, and hopefully Chris Collins learned a lot about his squad over the holiday break. The second half of the Utah game showed how dangerous they could be as they had an efficient, balanced offensive attack. But, that kind of performance hasn’t always happened thus far this season, and new players are still figuring out their roles. It feels like Taylor has to be aggressive every game for NU to stand a chance against top competition, and that didn’t happen against Fresno State.

Collins has said defense needs to be the team’s calling card this season, and that’s true, but missing shot after shot at the other end makes it difficult to defend. If Collins can takeaway one thing, though, it’s that his team won’t fold immediately. This is promising going forward, and possessing that trait is what could keep them from going down last year’s path.