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Despite encouraging signs, there are no answers in sight for Northwestern basketball

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The team’s recent injuries have forced the group to adopt a new style of play that may take a while to click.

Minnesota Gophers top Northwestern Wildcats Photo by Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS — Chris Collins wasn’t angry postgame. Instead, he seemed rather resigned but encouraged by the performance from his young, shorthanded team in its 77-68 loss to Minnesota on Sunday night.

The Wildcats hung tough for the majority of the first half, but the deficit began to widen before it ballooned to over 20 midway through the second half. NU was able to avoid an embarrassing affair as they made a couple of late runs, but Minnesota’s free throw shooting kept the ‘Cats at arm’s length.

“I was just really proud, because that game was on the brink of getting real ugly,” Collins said. “They go up 23, our guys are really tired. I called a timeout, we came out and hit those three threes in a row which kind of ignited some spirit and then we fought to the end, which is all I wanted those guys to do.”

The real difference in the game proved to be second-chance points, where Minnesota outscored NU 18-6. The Gophers out-rebounded the Wildcats 43-28 and 15-7 on the offensive glass. Sophomore Daniel Oturu led the way with 16 boards, six of which were offensive.

“I thought a lot of his baskets came from second chance opportunities,” Collins said. “We did a pretty good job swarming him in the post, making him get it out of there. A lot of his buckets tonight I thought were like ‘energy baskets’, playing off penetration, running the floor, offensive boards.”

Collins admitted postgame that his guys were always going to be swimming upstream with a short bench due to several injuries, as just a couple of hours before tipoff, news broke that Anthony Gaines, Boo Buie and A.J. Turner would all be out.

“It was really hard for us,” Northwestern’s head coach told the media postgame. “We really only had one guard playing. For Robbie Beran, it’s the first he’s played as a wing all year long. He’s played as a four for us. We’re playing Ryan Young, Pete Nance, Jared Jones — those guys are 6-foot-9 and above. We had seven guys [available tonight], four of them playing as post guys the whole year.”

For this young team, Collins said news of the injuries came just a few days ago and created a challenge since they only had a couple of days to figure out how to restructure their playing style. The offense in particular had trouble getting open looks from the perimeter, and NU didn’t even attempt a three until there was 2:57 left in the opening half.

“Look out there at the guys playing: Kopp is a sophomore, Nance is a sophomore, Beran is a freshman, Young is a freshman, Greer is a sophomore, Jones is a freshman,” Collins said. “So for all guys who are really young to, in a couple of days, kinda reinvent how we’re trying to play, it’s a lot on those guys.”

That new style of play isn’t just going away. Gaines will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, Buie has a stress fracture that will keep him out “a while”, and Collins says he hopes to get Turner back sooner rather than later.

With the personnel available to Collins, he’s going to have to find something that’s more effective and also creates open shots from the perimeter before games — and the season’s goals — are out of reach.

“I’ve got to do a better job, since this is gonna be the group we’re going to have for the time being,” he said. “We have to figure out how we can still functionally play.”

Minnesota prepared well and prevented Northwestern from functionally playing into its sets, which both Collins and guard Pat Spencer gave as the main reason for NU not getting three-point attempts, of which they usually take about 20 per game.

“They were pressuring our offense, and so we had to go away from what we wanted to do initially and it became more of a pick-and-roll game as far as pressuring the adjacent passer,” Spencer said. “We’ve been able to knock the three-ball down pretty efficiently this year, and they took that away.”

Having Buie, a natural ball-handler, could’ve immensely helped this offense tick. The first-year had provided a jolt to the offense, and in the three games before his injury — against some of NU’s best competition, no less — he averaged 21.7 points and 5.3 assists per game.

Instead, much of the burden fell on the shoulders of Spencer, who did everything he could to keep the Wildcats competitive. He played a staggering 39 minutes, led all scorers with 22 points (and did so on 9-18 shooting), and dished out eight assists. Not bad for a lacrosse player.

With the injury situation, it could very well be the Spencer show for the foreseeable future, but the grad transfer said the key is patching together a lineup with chemistry.

“Boo has been unbelievable for us the last few games, so it’s tough to replace that many points, but it’s gonna be full effort, so a lot of different guys are gonna to have to step up,” he said. “I’m willing to be one of those guys, and I think we’ve got a lot of guys who are willing to do that as well.”