CHICAGO — In any team sport, consistency is achieved through a culmination of talent, coaching and experience. It is something head coach Chris Collins and his young team continue to strive for, but, as last night displayed, they are not quite there yet.
Northwestern (5-6, 0-2 B1G) traded baskets for 40 full minutes with seemingly ascendant crosstown rivals DePaul (12-1) last night. But with a win in sight, the ‘Cats ultimately failed to prevail down the stretch, falling 83-78. It was a game defined by runs, and though NU had their fair share of them, largely led by red-hot freshman Boo Buie, the Blue Demons had the last laugh.
As it has been against veteran teams at times early in the 2019-20 season, inexperience was yet again a problem for a ‘Cats squad that was without junior guard, Anthony Gaines. Thanks to what was announced prior to the game as an upper body injury to his defensive leader, Collins had to shake up the starting lineup, adding AJ Turner to the starting five while also replacing Pat Spencer with Buie at point guard.
“He’s been bothered all year with it, we needed to take a step back and get this thing treated and use the holiday to see if this will be something extended or something he can play through,” Collins said after the game.
When asked about his decision to bench Spencer, his grad transfer point guard, in favor of the ever-confident and, of late, production-heavy Buie, Collins elaborated that he needed more experience off the bench.
“Our team changed with the loss of Gaines…I didn’t want our whole bench to be all freshman,” said Collins. “Bringing Spencer off as a veteran guy, I wanted to take a look at it.”
It might have been just the right time to keep Buie, who had a phenomenal 25-point night in his first career start, running hot. His shooting kept the ‘Cats alive throughout, snapping a 17-1 Blue Demons run with a pair of threes in the first half and continuing to hit big shots across the ensuing 20 minutes of game time.
This was Buie’s third 20+ point outing of the season, making him the first NU freshman to have three 20-point games in one year since Dave Sobolewski in 2011-12, according to Northwestern Athletics. The true first year is now averaging 16 points on 52 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent on looks beyond the arc to go along with a 2/1 assist-to-turnover ratio over the past six games. Five of those contests came against high major competition.
Unfortunately, for all of his impressive numbers and plays, the freshman guard, along with the rest of the team, struggled in the final minutes when the Blue Demon defense tightened up. A few late turnovers and missed free throws allowed DePaul to put it away quickly despite Northwestern having nursed a small lead for much of the second half.
“I made some bad plays down the stretch…I didn’t come out the way I wanted to,” said Buie. “We just gotta learn and grow from the experiences from nights like tonight.”
Though, in a sign of some early leadership, Buie took the blame upon himself, it was really the disparity in total games played between the two Chicago-area teams that determined the victor in last night’s contest.
“Their experience showed…all those guys are 4th and 5th year players and that’s where experience shows in a tough game,” Collins said. “Lot of positives but it’s still very disappointing as a competitor. You like where our development is…but we have to regroup and use the holiday to go into the Big Ten grind strong.”
The glaring issue for Northwestern in last night’s contest, other than their failure to perform under pressure in the final minutes, was rebounding. They gave up 15 offensive boards to DePaul, resulting in 13 more field goal attempts from the Blue Demons than from the ‘Cats. Part of this rebounding problem stemmed from Northwestern’s bigs’ foul trouble, with Pete Nance and Robbie Beran each picking up three personals in the first half and Ryan Young ending the night with four fouls.
“We were in so much foul trouble that when they were in, they were playing timid,” added Collins regarding the rebounding issue.
Ultimately, these are the types of learning curves that every young team has to go through. Consistency on both ends of the floor and in every facet of the game will eventually come with more experience. With six out of eight rotation players in the hard-fought loss being either freshmen or sophomores, Collins remained optimistic heading back to Evanston.
“I gotta do a better job with these guys, I’m looking forward to practicing,” Collins finished. “That game was right there for us tonight had we handled the ball right. That’s where I take responsibility, with young guys, we gotta get more confidence.”
There are certainly some moral victories to be had by Northwestern from the past two games. In a pure rebuilding year, NU’s squad seems to be developing at a rapid pace, and it might just be a matter of time until the ‘Cats pull off an upset against a ranked opponent.
Northwestern will go on a week-long holiday break until they face off against Hartford back in Welsh-Ryan. If their performances, even in losing efforts, across the past couple of games are any indication, the ‘Cats should be able to get back to .500 next Sunday.