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What’s wrong with Northwestern men’s basketball?

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Several factors have contributed to the Wildcats’ 1-5 start to Big Ten play.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Time is running out on the season for the men’s basketball team. After a promising start to Big Ten play in terms of performances, if not results, things are beginning to spiral downward.

Northwestern lost by a combined 46 points to Michigan and Michigan State on the road, barely beat a struggling Illinois team at home and blew a second half lead to an Iowa team missing its best player. Sitting at 1-5 in conference play, the NCAA Tournament looks farther than it’s been all season.

Why is this happening? Why is a team a team that features arguably two of the Big Ten’s best 25 players struggling to close games and play cohesively?

Here’s why.

No true point guard

This has been the case all season, and everyone who can name Northwestern’s basketball arena knows it. A.J. Turner hasn’t been horrible, but he’s not a point guard. It’s been written about. I don’t think it’s necessary to explain all the ways having no point guard hurts a team, but it’s more evident than ever at the end of games. In basically every close game NU has played, late-game offense has been a problem. Against Indiana, Michigan at home, Oklahoma and even Illinois (when an offensive rebound bailed out a play that didn’t work), Northwestern has missed a true facilitator to set up teammates and get the offense into its sets.

You could say “Northwestern is a few possessions away from having some big wins against Indiana, Michigan and Oklahoma,” which is true, but Northwestern is also a few possessions away from home losses to DePaul and Illinois.

The Wildcats actually assist on a great percentage of their field goals (63.5 percent of them, good for eighth in the country), but there’s little flow and rhythm to the offense. There really isn’t a single player who can break down a defense off the dribble consistently, and that leads to a lot of threes and contested jumpers.

The thing is, it’s not a valid excuse to just say “We have no true point guard.” Nobody from Northwestern is making that excuse, but still. Head coach Chris Collins should’ve recruited better in previous classes to get a competent point guard. Bryant McIntosh played insane amounts of minutes because NU didn’t have a competent backup, and now B-Mac’s absence has created a void of epic proportions.

The revocation of Jordan Lathon’s admission didn’t put Northwestern in this spot. Failing to land Matt Mooney as a grad-transfer didn’t either. Lathon would’ve helped, but not by much. Mooney would’ve helped a ton and probably solved the problem, but you can’t just count on grad transfers to provide a minimum level of depth at a key position. Whiffing on Isiah Brown and Jordan Ash, and failing to land players like Brad Davison and Kellan Grady, did this.

The 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes

The remnants of the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes are Barret Benson and Anthony Gaines. That’s it.

Isiah Brown and Rapolas Ivanauskas transferred out because they weren’t playing (because they weren’t living up to recruiting promise), and Collins got Gaines as the lone recruit in a class where he missed on a lot of players.

So think about this. Out of two recruiting classes, Collins got 1.5 competent players (that may be generous). Go back to 2015, and Collins found a gem in Dererk Pardon, but missed on Jordan Ash and Aaron Falzon. Sure, Falzon has been hurt, but he still hasn’t been able to contribute. Three recruiting classes produced one star and one borderline starting-caliber player.

Benson is stuck playing behind Dererk Pardon, but he’s hardly looked competent when he’s played. He averages 6.7 fouls committed per 40 minutes, and he’s scored 11 total points in six Big Ten games. Gaines plays good defense, and he has good stretches offensively, but they’re too few and far between. He probably shouldn’t be a starter on a good team.

Plain and simple, Northwestern doesn’t have enough good players right now. Throw in an injury or two, and the train falls off the tracks.

Ryan Taylor

Taylor is clearly a good shooter and a natural scorer. The problem thus far has been consistency, which is disappointing considering his sparkling offer sheet as a grad transfer. Taylor is shooting just 37 percent from the floor and 35 percent from three — not horrible, but not what Northwestern expected out of him. He turns the ball over at a high rate, doesn’t provide much in terms of playmaking and is a liability defensively. When his shot isn’t falling, he looks unplayable. For a player with as much hype as he had coming in that shouldn’t happen.

Outlook

Northwestern has probably played the most difficult schedule in the Big Ten so far. The Wildcats rank No. 59 in KenPom, which is roughly halfway between two years ago (the Tournament team) and last year (the Allstate disaster). NU needs 10 or 11 Big Ten wins to be in the hunt for a Tournament bid, and that looks unlikely. Going 10-4 the rest of the way, especially against a schedule that includes few slouches, will be tough, and that still might not get NU into March Madness. Even games like Rutgers look more difficult than expected (not that Northwestern is really in a position to underestimate Rutgers after last season).

Things look bleak right now for Northwestern, and it’s unclear when Vic Law will return to the lineup. We might need this story again come Friday.