EVANSTON — Northwestern men’s basketball’s two year long 180-degree finally turn met its lowest point on Friday.
Entering as 18.5 point favorites in its season opener against Merrimack, a team that was playing Division 2 basketball eight months ago, NU suffered the fourth-worst upset, by point spread, of any Big Ten team in the 21st century, and it accurately summed up the state of a program that seemingly hasn’t had anything really go right since that oft-mentioned magical postseason run.
On March 18, 2017, Wildcat fans were enraged over the lack of a key goaltending call in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Though NU couldn’t pull off the upset of one-seed Gonzaga, ending the program’s best season since the tourney’s advent, it seemed that Northwestern was about to establish itself as a solid if not excellent program. The team was ranked in the following preseason AP poll, and expectations for Collins’ group were at an all-time high.
Since then, the ‘Cats have won 40 percent of the games they’ve competed in, and 36 percent of their Big Ten contests. Those losses included a 27-point lead blown at the hands of Michigan State two seasons ago, as well as a number of embarrassing 20+ point blowout defeats.
But the worst loss didn’t come until yesterday, at the hands of a team that was playing its second game as a Division 1 program. Its first? A 20-point defeat against Maine, who finished last season 5-27.
Even with virtually zero expectations being placed upon this NU team coming into the season, it’s hard to fathom a loss of this caliber. With all due respect to a Merrimack team that competed its heart out (shoutout to Devin Jensen and Juvaris Hayes), its roster is comprised of players that were mainly recruited with an intention to play Division 2 basketball.
“It’s incredibly disappointing,” Collins said in his postgame press conference. “We had to learn a hard lesson tonight, but it’s going to be a process we have to fight through. We’re not going to quit. We got what we deserved tonight.”
Northwestern did indeed get what it deserved. The Wildcats shot 38 percent from the field and a staggering 12.5 percent from beyond the arc, converting on two of its 16 three-point attempts. Merrimack didn’t have a special performance, like teams often do in upsets of this caliber (the Warriors were 45 percent from the field and 31 percent from deep). Instead, NU just wasn’t good enough on either end of the floor.
One of the lone bright spots was Pete Nance, a sophomore that entered Evanston as part of a historic recruiting class that was meant to change the program. But as the program found itself on the wrong side of history, Nance had no intentions of finding the good in his 19-point double-double.
“We’ve just gotta look at ourselves and figure out what we’re doing wrong and how we’re not preparing correctly,” Nance said. “It’s our first game, and we’ve gotta get better for sure.”
The other prized piece in that 2018 recruiting class was Miller Kopp, a sharp swingman from Texas. Kopp was 2-for-6 from the field and 1-for-4 from beyond the arc, and he never seemed to find any type of comfort or rhythm after beginning the game with eight quick points thanks to drawing two consecutive fouls beyond the arc. To him, the team’s issue was a significant lack of intensity.
“I think we just need more energy,” Kopp said. “In the first game of the year I think there should be more energy. We have to look within and play with more fire and passion.”
While that passion may have played a huge factor in the contest, Friday’s defeat was about much more than that. Merrimack opted to go with a relatively traditional, if aggressive, 2-3 zone throughout the majority of the game, and NU had absolutely no answer, running a triangle offense that failed to put enough pressure on the Warriors’ defense.
“We knew they were gonna play the 2-3 zone,” Collins said. “The sweet spot against their zone was the middle. Two nights ago against Maine, Maine’s two bigs had 56 points. We knew coming into the game, that’s where we were going to have to attack it.”
NU was 11-for-28 shooting from in and around the paint, and when attacking a 2-3 zone, that number isn’t nearly good enough. Nance was the only big who really punished Merrimack inside, and even he finished just 6-of-14 in that area.
On the other end of the floor, Northwestern’s defense, typically the team’s calling card during the Collins era, looked sluggish and lost at times. Free buckets were conceded throughout the game, and the Warriors seemed to exploit Northwestern’s lack of energy, which Collins also discussed at length, despite playing a game in the Northeast 48 hours earlier.
“We didn’t defend well, we were on our heels and I didn’t think our aggressiveness, our activity with our hands was good,” Collins said. “But this isn’t the same team as last year. You don’t have [Dererk] Pardon or Vic Law out there. We’re developing our habits and we gotta get better with our habits and cause a bit more disruption on that end.”
The question now is where Northwestern goes from here. Merrimack, despite a couple of intriguing pieces, was certainly one of the least talented teams the Wildcats will face all year, and the team’s grinding Big Ten schedule is not exactly conducive to winning games.
Collins said that he told his team postgame that they have two choices. “We can lay down, or we can decide to get off the pavement and fight.”
If this young Northwestern squad isn’t able to pick the latter option, which seems entirely possible given the lack of motivation they displayed after a whole offseason to get up for the opener, the term rock bottom may find itself being used quite a bit this winter, and not just for football.