EVANSTON — “Obviously, this was a very disappointing loss today,” opened Chris Collins in Sunday’s postgame press conference. The familiar line undoubtedly only added to Northwestern men’s basketball fans’ sense of deja vu.
For the second time this season, the Wildcats (5-7, 0-2 B1G) had lost at home as 17+ point favorites to a team ranked right around 300th in KenPom. It was their third lost buy game, meaning not only three unfortunate brutality-based tweets from Jon Rothstein, but a season-long sub-.500 buy game record (2-3) for the first time in recent memory. Even the absolute worst teams of the last 25 years of Northwestern basketball hadn’t sunken so low.
Most importantly, though, it marked yet another disastrously sluggish start for a team that has now become accustomed to them against lesser competition. And after the game, Collins was still searching for answers.
“You’d have to ask the players,” he began when asked if there was a through line between slow, lethargic-looking starts in games including the Merrimack upset early in the season and the Hartford loss. “I’d love to give you the answer to that...normally, you always guard against [slow starts] in the post-Christmas game, but we’ve got a lot guys who, it’s the first time they’ve gone home for a few days.”
Whether or not Northwestern’s youth was to blame, the Wildcats came out especially slow defensively, allowing Hartford to get hot en route to 37 first half points on 63 percent shooting without defensive leader Anthony Gaines. The junior captain, who was held out with an upper-body injury, received a prime example of just why the team needs his on-court energy and leadership so much on the defensive end.
“It’s gotta be a collective effort,” said leading scorer Miller Kopp on how Northwestern tries to make up for Gaines’ is absence. “It can’t just be one guy. With all the things he does well, we all need to step up.”
Instead, the guard play all game long looked as bad as it has all season. The ‘Cats turned it over only five times on the game, but Pat Spencer and Ryan Greer combined to go 4-17 from the field as they attempted to supplant true freshman Boo Buie, who finished with 14 points on six assists but took 14 shots together.
With AJ Turner out for much of the game, first due to foul trouble and then due to injury, the two saw all the important minutes in the second half, with each missing a variety of important shots and Spencer, in particular, struggling mightily on the defensive end.
“I thought Greer’s energy gave us pop in the second half,” Collins said of his decision to play the true sophomore exclusively for the game’s final seven minutes. “I just thought we were struggling for energy.”
And though Greer did help create a few nice defensive plays down the stretch, including an important late steal, it was he who got switched onto Hunter Marks on Hartford’s final possession. The 6’9” forward used his height to drop in a floater over the smaller guard, completing a 6-0 run for the Hawks over a disastrous final 97 seconds for Northwestern.
“We’re up 66-61 with a minute and a half left, you gotta get a stop or a score or both,” Collins later recounted. “We got neither.”
Kopp, after a red hot second half, including five straight made shots, that virtually singlehandedly propelled Northwestern back in front (he finished with with a game-high 24 points), was suddenly being blanketed by Hartford, and no other Wildcat could make a play offensively. On the other end, the Wildcat defense, which had looked strong at times in the second half but was also relying a bit too much on missed open looks for comfort, completely fell apart.
Three baskets later, a desperate heave turned into only a blocked Ryan Young shot, and once again, the Wildcats had reached a nadir. Despite positive performances in their last few games, it was another thoroughly embarrassing loss for a rebuilding team that, as it tries to recruit for the future, just cannot afford anymore of them.
In a nightmare version of the aftermath of Northwestern’s last memorable full-court pass with less than two seconds left at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Hartford players descended on the court to mob their teammates as a healthy crowd shuffled to the exits in silence. Again.
“I want to give credit to this Northwestern team,” said jubilant (and extremely animated) Hartford head coach John Gallagher after the game. “This will be an NCAA Tournament type of team in a year. I love the pieces they have.”
After another uninspired performance against a bottom of the barrel foe and an inexcusable collapse down the stretch, never has that seemed further from the truth.