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Three positives/negatives from Northwestern’s opening conference loss to Purdue

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Pete Nance is coming into his own.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Wildcats began their Big Ten campaign with a loss Sunday, falling to a tough and talented Purdue Boilermaker team by a score of 58-44 in West Lafayette. The game was closer than the final tally indicated, and there were plenty of takeaways on both ends of the floor as NU fell back to .500 for the season.

Here are a few notable ones from Sunday’s defeat:

Positives

Pete Nance is playing with the perfect level of confidence

The sophomore forward had one of his strongest career games on Sunday considering the caliber of opponent NU faced in Purdue. Against one of the best defenses the ‘Cats will face all season, Nance dropped 14 points on an efficient 50 percent shooting from the field. He didn’t score more than 7 points in any conference matchup last year.

Nance came out ready to play and looked good from start to finish. He knocked down two quick threes in succession to start the game, and had no hesitation attacking the paint no matter who the Boilermakers put on him. The power forward demanded the ball on Sunday and didn’t disappoint. It’s been exciting to see his growth so apparent in just these first eight games of the season. Nance is becoming exactly the type of scoring-minded player Northwestern needs on the floor given the team’s youth and inexperience.

Defense can keep the Wildcats in any game

This was always going to be a low-scoring game, but Purdue had dropped nearly 70 points on defensive stalwart Virginia last week. Northwestern, on the road, held the Boilermakers under 60 points, and that is impressive. The ‘Cats once again did so by switching between man and zone, and Chris Collins deserves a ton of credit for his in-game defensive adjustments thus far.

The Wildcats had a clear defensive game plan coming out of the gates, and they stuck to it well. By double teaming the post nearly every time a Purdue big caught the ball, NU was able to force the Boilermakers into a high amount of three-point attempts that they didn’t make. This was Northwestern’s only chance at having a shot at pulling the upset, so it was nice to see them execute well. Defense has been a consistent bright spot throughout these first eight games.

Northwestern is getting above average front court play from Ryan Young

I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted the output the Wildcats have been getting from their redshirt freshman thus far. Young’s consistent crashing of the boards on both ends of the floor is reminiscent of the production NU got from Dererk Pardon throughout his career, and he’s done so while being undersized in the majority of matchups he’s gone into this season.

The best part of it all? Young still has a long ways to go in improving despite impressing early on. He’s turning the ball over more than NU would like, often looking a little unsteady and jittery in the post when he catches the ball. Outside of Nance, Young has started the season as impressive as any Northwestern player in terms of consistency.

Negatives

Pat Spencer has cooled down

For the past two games, Pat Spencer has looked like a player that hasn’t played competitive basketball in four years. The point guard had his worst game of the season on Sunday, struggling mightily against the full court man-to-man defense Purdue threw at him. Spencer was held scoreless for the first time all year as at times he looked out of control trying to penetrate the lane and take care of the ball.

It’s definitely not time to hit the panic button given what he showed he can do in Fort Myers, but it was certainly an evening to forget for Northwestern’s starting point guard.

Northwestern is getting below average front court play from Jared Jones

It’s hard to say Jones has failed to meet expectations given he’s an inexperienced freshman, but Chris Collins can’t be terribly happy with the play he’s gotten from his backup center so far this season. The freshman has often looked lost and out of place when he sees the floor, and it showed on Sunday. Jones committed four fouls in just three minutes of action.

Like the rest of these young players, the freshman will continue to grow more comfortable as the season rolls on, but for now it’s going to cause this NU front court serious depth issues. Ryan Young has given the Wildcats valuable minutes, but he’s going to need some help.

Anthony Gaines has to improve as a scorer

Gaines wasn’t the only Wildcat who struggled offensively Sunday, but the team could use a huge boost from one of its most natural slashers. As the team’s best individual defender, the junior needs to play 30+ minutes per game, but if he’s going to see the floor that much (which he should), he’s going to have to add some scoring to go along with it.

Whether it’s getting to the line or penetrating only to dump it off for an open teammate, Gaines has the potential to become a more potent offensive threat. His defense keeps NU in nearly every game, and now it’s time for him to take the next step on offense.