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Northwestern hits rock-bottom with loss to Penn State

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Things are bleak right now for Chris Collins & Co.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

A little less than two years removed from the program’s first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, Northwestern appears hell-bent on completing the full 180.

Now sitting at 3-8 in the Big Ten after putting up an abysmal 52 points at home against the worst team in the conference (record-wise), the Wildcats (12-10, 3-8 Big Ten) must confront the reality that things haven’t gotten better with time.

With a member of the venerated Krzyzewski coaching tree at the helm and a newly renovated stadium to satisfy his wishes, it’s not too much of a stretch to say a 31.7 percent shooting performance against Penn State — previously 0-10 in Big Ten play — in front of its home crowd is rock bottom for a Northwestern team that has looked woeful offensively for most of the last month (unless Northwestern loses its next six or seven games, then that’s probably rock bottom).

A cold shooting night happens to the best of teams, but the loss to the Nittany Lions was indicative of just how far this team has fallen in two seasons and could be a glimpse of what the Wildcats have in store for the foreseeable future.

Problems are myriad right now for NU, but perhaps the biggest lies with the recent struggles of Vic Law. The expected leader and go-to offensive threat headed into his senior season, Law has struggled mightily recently when the team has needed his offensive prowess most.

Over his last eight games, Law has shot 23 percent from the field and 15.7 percent from three. And while most quality teams can rely on secondary scoring threats to pick up the slack while its best player slumps, the Wildcats have been left without really anyone to turn to. A 3-of-17 performance against Penn State is the latest of what’s been a trying stretch for Law.

Outside of Dererk Pardon (who feels like the last man standing, aside from maybe Anthony Gaines), Northwestern has no efficient or consistent scorers. That is not to say the Cats completely lack talent on the offensive side of the ball, but no one has shown that they can reliably knock down jumpers or get to the rim.

The grad-transfer Ryan Taylor hasn’t had the season Northwestern expected, shooting 36 percent from the field and 35 percent from three. That hasn’t deterred him from continuing to put up shots, though, and as a result Taylor’s name has become synonymous with the ball clanking off the rim.

Same is the case for A.J. Turner, who also boasts dismal shooting numbers this season. At 35 percent shooting overall and 30 percent from beyond the arc, Turner has hardly been the reliable wing scorer Northwestern needs him to be. Part of that stems from him playing point guard, which isn’t his natural position, but he’s averaged under six points a game over his last 12.

Perhaps one of the more promising prospects on the roster, Miller Kopp hasn’t been able to give the Cats any significant contributions. A 6-foot-7-inch scorer, Kopp will likely be a reliable option by the time he’s a senior, but as of now, he’s just another role player who remains too inconsistent on the offensive end to even begin to compensate for the rest of the team’s scoring deficiencies.

While Northwestern has been killed by the inefficiency and lack of production its gotten from its wings, it at least appears to have found a ball-handler of the future. A big question mark to start the season, that role has been filled nicely by Anthony Gaines. Should he fully be able to add a three-point shot to his arsenal (a huge if), Gaines could be a lone bright spot in the Wildcats future. Right now, though, he averages less than seven points a game on 37 percent shooting. Realistically, he’s a complementary piece who should probably come off the bench on a good team.

In the present, Pardon is the only reliable scorer. Shooting nearly 60 percent from the field, Pardon has held up his end of the bargain, but he simply cannot carry the entire scoring load. The senior big man can get you tough buckets in the paint when you need it, but he’s not capable of willing the team to victory possession by possession nor should be expected to. Plus, he doesn’t get the ball nearly enough.

Time is running out on his senior season that’s already been largely wasted. Unless Law overcomes his offensive woes, Northwestern will likely continue to look like it’s shooting on a basket that still has its lid on. Even then, it’ll probably be too little too late.

The Penn State loss could have very well dealt the crushing blow the Cats’ tournament hopes, as Northwestern lacks impressive wins to bolster its resume and seems unlikely to obtain many in the future. Plenty of teams remaining on the schedule would serve as quality wins, but that would require the Cats to score more points than their opponent which, as we’ve discussed, is quite a tall task.

Barring a 9-0 finish, the season is likely a lost one for Northwestern, but it remains equally hard to get excited about the program’s future. Pardon and Law will graduate at the end of the year, leaving the program in the hands of...whom? Gaines and Kopp will return as solid pieces, but they’re hardly enough to give reason for real optimism. Unless Pete Nance turns into his older brother or Robbie Beran is ready to dominate, the Wildcats could be Big Ten bottom-dwellers for the foreseeable future.

Any hopes of Collins turning Northwestern into the Duke of the midwest, or at least something moderately close to it, have dissolved nearly as quickly as they came. Northwestern isn’t back to square one, but it’s trending that way.