An anniversary was celebrated yesterday. One year ago, on the dark and gloomy night of December 29, 2019, Northwestern men’s basketball lost at home to the University of Hartford by a score of 67-66. That incomparable Hawks team (who would finish 18-15 playing in the American East Conference) dropped the ‘Cats to 5-7 that night in their last nonconference bout of the season.
Northwestern celebrated in style with another loss last night in Iowa City, but the circumstances couldn’t be any more different. Sure, an 87-72 loss in which the defense gets obliterated by nine threes from the opposing backcourt is never great, but the last thing the ‘Cats should do is hang their heads following this defeat.
“I was really proud of how we kept bouncing back every time they had a run,” Chris Collins said postgame. “We knew how good of a team Iowa was, and we knew we were going to get their best shot. They were coming off a really tough loss at Minnesota, and we knew they had respect for what we had been doing.”
Many Big Ten coaches lauded the Wildcats last season just minutes after their own team had emerged victorious. They claimed that they respected Northwestern, but with how the team is playing this year, they have to give them respect or else they’re going to get beat.
The Wildcat defense didn’t have a lockdown performance, but Iowa didn’t do anything that extraordinary for them. The Hawkeyes averaged 1.09 points per possession (PPP) against Northwestern, according to Synergy Sports, but for the season they’ve averaged a similar mark of 1.055 PPP, good for the 97th percentile among all Division I teams. The Wildcats weren’t just facing a good offense, they were facing a historically efficient offense that had an above-average shooting performance to boot.
Ignore that number two you see in Iowa’s loss column. The team the ‘Cats played last night is elite, with their two losses coming against quite possibly the best team college basketball has seen in years in Gonzaga and at Minnesota after they led by seven with under a minute to go.
Surprisingly, the Wildcats contained bushy-browed phenom Luka Garza, snapping his streak of 18 straight conference games with at least 20 points. However, a direct line can be drawn through Garza’s down night and the sharpshooting of CJ Fredrick and Jordan Bohannon, as Northwestern often sent and doubled at the hyper-efficient low post scorer to try and deter him from attempting shots inside, which opened up a plethora of open shots on the perimeter.
“He [Garza] affects your defensive game plan greatly because he’s unstoppable in a one on one situation,” Collins said. “He just he requires a lot of attention or else he’s gonna make you pay in a big way.”
Garza only made the ‘Cats pay to the tune of 18 points, but his backcourt stepped up to contribute 43 points that more than sufficed. It’s what great offenses do.
Northwestern itself is averaging 1.041 PPP, placing them in the 95th percentile of college offenses. They were held to 0.95 points per possession on Tuesday night, their second-worst offensive output of the season in front of the Pittsburgh fiasco. Even then, 0.95 PPP would still rank 84th nationally in a group of over 350 teams.
Boo Buie’s leap from frisky bench scorer to a legitimate catalyst toward great offense has been one of the biggest storylines for the ‘Cats, and he finally came back down to earth vs. Iowa. He entered Tuesday night shooting nearly 54 percent from behind the arc, only to go 0-for-4 from three, dropped his three-point percentage eight points and finished 1-for-8 from the field.
“He’ll be better. You’re not going to play great all 20 games,” Collins said in reference to the sophomore guard. “I thought they [Iowa] put a heavy emphasis on Boo’s scoring ability, and there’s going to be nights as a point guard where you have to be a distributor, and he did get the eight assists. you know, which I was really happy to see even if he didn’t shoot it as well. He’s learning how to deal with that added attention now that he’s established himself as a really good player ”
In a contest where one of the team’s three best players played poorly and the opponents got free for several good looks from three, Northwestern remained competitive until the final few minutes of the game. Who knows, had the referees not called that very questionable technical foul on Pete Nance for an apparent profanity he shouted to Iowa’s Keegan Murray mid-block, NU might have found a way to hang in there just a bit longer with the favored Hawkeyes.
It’s important to remember that a program’s progression is more often linear than exponential. Rarely does a team simply jump from conference bottom feeder to basketball titan simply because they switched to the five-out offense.
Northwestern men’s basketball looked like a lost cause a year ago today, and now they sit 3-1 in the conference, having given a potential Final Four team a decent run for its money. Losses happen. It doesn’t mean that NU has developed a new problem in need of fixing, it just reinforces the idea that Iowa is good and Northwestern isn’t quite at the mountaintop yet.
The road only gets tougher from here, as the slate of competent Big Ten opponents seemingly never ends, but this team is more than well-equipped to handle the daunting task, and they’re undoubtedly in a better position than they were entering 2020. Thank goodness for that.