Northwestern (6-3, 0-2 B1G) was not expected to win either of their first two conference games, especially after an early-season blowout loss to Fresno State. But the Wildcats scratched and clawed their way to close late-game situations in both, before finding ways to fumble them away down the stretch.
Against Indiana, they hung around for the whole game thanks to a transcendent performance from Dererk Pardon before finally surging into a late lead. After some wasted possessions down the stretch, though, Northwestern left Assembly Hall with nothing.
And a similar situation played out Tuesday night against Michigan. The Wildcats, remaining in the game through the first half thanks to 16 points from Pardon, were buoyed by the raucous home crowd en route to a 15-2 second half run to close the lead to two. Later, a pair of clutch threes from Law gave them the lead. But once again, Northwestern couldn’t finish.
“I’m not a moral victory guy,” Chris Collins told the media after his team’s second agonizing loss of conference play. “Please don’t ask me if I feel happy because I’m not. We wanted to win.”
And they nearly did, which is encouraging. The Wildcats, especially their two best players, are clearly improved from early this season. And as the team continues to gel, they look like legitimate contenders for an NCAA Tournament spot.
But to get over the hump, the Wildcats can’t lean entirely on Law and Pardon. Over the past two games, probably the team’s most complete performances of the year despite their results, the dynamic duo have been on the floor for 72 and 74 minutes respectively.
In Law’s time on the floor, he has somehow been a +6, including recording a +5 in 38 minutes against Michigan. Essentially, without him on the floor, Northwestern has been unable to defend, and has really struggled to make things work offensively as well. And while the senior’s work has been impressive, hitting big shot after big shot over the last two weeks, Northwestern can’t rely so heavily on Law on both ends of the court.
As far as Pardon goes, his efficiency is limited without enough scorers around him. Indiana refused to double the big man, the same way Michigan did in the first half, and he terrorized them. In those 60 minutes, of which he played 56, Pardon was an incredible 18-of-23 from the field, garnering 40 points and 14 rebounds.
But the Wolverines brought double teams in the second half with Ignas Brazdeikis, and Anthony Gaines, left open, couldn’t capitalize. Northwestern played well as a whole, but Pardon was largely eliminated as a threat, scoring just four points, adding a rebound, and turning the ball over once.
This team could certainly use a legitimate, consistent third option. It may be that Ryan Taylor and AJ Turner are still adjusting to life as part of Northwestern’s offense. Turner looks tentative, though, and while Taylor certainly has had confidence in spades, he’s struggled to find the looks he wants consistently. At the same time, the Wildcats need to establish an offensive presence outside of their top four.
Their depth was touted by many, including me, before the season. Freshmen Miller Kopp and Pete Nance have struggled to adapt to the college game, though, often looking too slow to keep up, and Ryan Greer and Jordan Ash haven’t offered much either. While Anthony Gaines has earned the bulk of the playing time alongside the core four, he has been mainly a one-trick pony; playing athletic, energetic, solid defense and offering little to nothing on the other end.
The common thread against the Hoosiers and Wolverines down the stretch was exhaustion. Law and Pardon, carrying scoring and defensive burdens, were running out of steam, while Taylor and Turner had been ground down trying to avoid mistakes while making plays within a still relatively new system. But Collins didn’t go to subs. Kopp played six mostly effective minutes early in the second half against Indiana, but otherwise every player besides the main lineup of Gaines-Turner-Taylor-Law-Pardon earned 11 combined minutes.
Those five kept the game close, and had chances to win at the end. And sure, Northwestern’s failures down the stretch can be chalked up at least in part to simple lack of execution and good defense. Still, to win close games the rest of the way, Northwestern will need fresh legs.
Law and Pardon have played out of their minds to begin conference play before the upcoming lull, but they need help to finish things off. If they get it, Northwestern will start winning these close games instead of losing them.