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Four takeaways from Northwestern’s first two conference games

Chris Collins isn’t one for moral victories, but we can be.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Two eerily similar Ryan Taylor three-point heaves at the end of Northwestern’s first two Big Ten games did not fall, and the ‘Cats are 0-2 in conference play.

The extended Big Ten schedule now features 20 games instead of 18, and NU played its two additional contests in a four-day span. It will not restart conference play until 2019. There’s plenty to digest after two nail-biting heartbreakers, so here are some takeaways from the losses to Indiana and Michigan:

Pardon and Law, more Pardon and Law, and only Pardon and Law

The two seniors were projected to be among Northwestern’s stalwarts this season, and they have been just that. Law, along with his reliable defensive prowess, has shown that he is one of the go-to guys for the ‘Cats. He averaged 17.5 points and eight rebounds in NU’s first two conference games, while shooting 50 percent from three. His offseason lung surgery has noticeably increased his two-way ability and has put him among the Big Ten’s most threatening players. Pardon was more prolific on the offensive end than Law, averaging 22 points per contest and wreaking havoc on teams down low who refused to double-team him. He continues to show that he is one of the elite B1G men, even knocking down his only three-point attempt against Michigan. The good news for Chris Collins is he legitimately has two of the better players in the conference -- they are accounting for an average of 39.5 of Northwestern’s 63 points during conference play. The bad news is just that: without them, this team can look more lost than freshmen trying to find their Ubers after a bar night in Chicago.

Ryan Taylor playing Jekyll and Hyde

The offseason landing of graduate transfer Ryan Taylor generated a lot of excitement around the program, and for good reason. He was the leading scorer in the Missouri Valley Conference (not a cakewalk of a conference), and he was efficient putting the ball in the basket. His time in Evanston, though, has seen its highs and lows. We’ve seen glimpses of Taylor looking unstoppable and his beautiful shot-creating ability, and then we have seen the past two performances: he scored just nine points and went 1-of-5 from behind the arc in each conference game. He has also been a defensive liability, and although Collins knew that when he got Taylor, he probably thought the shooting prowess would cover for that. The blame for Northwestern’s close-but-not-enough results can’t all be pinned on him, but he needs to pick up his shooting stroke to help this team get over the hump.

The freshmen...where are they?

Similar to Taylor, touted freshmen Miller Kopp and Pete Nance have struggled adjusting to Big Ten competition. Kopp starts, but it has become obvious that Collins’ starting lineup is more like a beginning lineup, the way the Tampa Bay Rays use pitchers to open games but don’t use them for more than an inning or two. Kopp has averaged 12.5 minutes per conference game, adding about five points per game with it, while Nance has barely seen the floor. He played 12 minutes against Indiana and just four against the Wolverines. Kopp has shown more offensive promise than Nance on the young season, but both have struggled defending, usually leading Collins to bring in Anthony Gaines. One of the biggest tasks this year is to develop the four-stars since the ‘Cats will be thin next year since Pardon, Law and Taylor won’t be back. Kopp and Nance have all of December to get up to speed before the meat of conference play.

The silver lining

Most of this article carries an underlying negativity to it, but let’s just take a step back and assess. Northwestern was expected to lose both games, and it hung more than tough in both, scaring both Indiana and Michigan in the final minutes of each game. Michigan had won every other game, including three over ranked opponents, by at least 17 points. Indiana already scored a victory over a ranked team, and the Hoosiers boast two of the most talented players in the Big Ten in Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan. Northwestern ranks 27th in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency, while Michigan is ranked best in the country and Indiana 22nd. So while the offense has been less than stellar, look at the matchups and how early it is in the season. Chris Collins said at the beginning of the season that the offense would be a work in progress, and having two Big Ten games in the first month of the season doesn’t help while they work through the kinks. The ‘Cats have lost games to the 4th and 23rd ranked teams in the country, according to KenPom, by a combined four points. This team has shown that there is a lot of room for improvement. Although Chris Collins said he is not a moral victory guy, this team, ranked 12th in the Big Ten in some preseason polls, could turn some close losses into significant conference wins in 2019.