EVANSTON — A blown lead or a blowout.
You either get one or the other as a fan of Northwestern men’s basketball (6-17, 1-12 B1G) these days, and Wednesday night’s game against Michigan (15-9, 6-7) was the latter.
Despite the progress shown by select younger players throughout the season and the frequent assurances from coaches and players that “this team is better than its record shows,” the Wildcats got stomped 79-54 on their own floor by a team that is below .500 in conference play. All of the bad that has plagued NU during this pitiful stretch reared its head yet again against the Wolverines. Only this time, very little of the good came with it.
At this point, it’s difficult to come up with a coherent, original take on a team that’s managed just one win in its last 14 games. Between coach Chris Collins’ penchant to mutter the same exact phrases at every postgame press conference - “you have to give credit to ___________ tonight” or “remember, this is a young team” or “it just wasn’t our night tonight” - and the team’s all-too-predictable habit of forgetting how to play offense at certain points in games, there just really isn’t much fodder for new material on the subject.
Let’s call it what it is: this is a bad basketball team (with the capacity to masquerade as a solid one at times) that might be good in future years should the team’s coaching match the progression of its players.
So, rather than bore you with yet another piece on how Northwestern will figure it out eventually as a result of its youth, I’d rather take a look at a few things that caught my eye in the ‘Cats’ eighth consecutive loss:
0-11 from the field
That’s how Michigan started the night, and yet the Wolverines still ran into the locker room at halftime with a 15 point lead.
While NU’s defense was stout to begin the game and Ryan Young was cleaning the glass consistently, Michigan’s abysmal shooting performance out of the gates didn’t exactly translate to much of a deficit on the scoreboard.
“To start the game, I think we got them to miss their first 11 shots,” Collins said. “They were 0-for-11, and we were only up 4-0. That’s when I knew, because they’re such an explosive offensive team, us not being able to get that separation early came back to haunt us.”
Four points. That’s how much of a lead the Cats were able to capture after forcing 11 straight misses to open the game. 11! Of course that is going to cost you.
While Collins seemed to chalk most of this up to his team looking “a little bit tired tonight,” the ineptitude of the team’s offensive sets should not go without blame. An abundance of early-shot clock misses, aimless dribbling around the perimeter and stagnant half-court sets made NU’s offense an eyesore.
When Boo Buie and Miller Kopp can’t get their shots to fall (they went a combined 1-9 in the first half), things aren’t likely to be pretty. And after all, few teams, especially those in Northwestern’s circumstances, can survive woeful shooting performances from their best scorers.
But decidedly more blame should be assigned to the Wildcat coaching staff. Far too often, it looked as though NU had no offensive plan. There certainly seemed to be a lot of the stand-around-and-let-Pat-Spencer-make-something-happen approach that has cost the team dearly in recent close losses, and when that wasn’t happening, someone else was chucking up a contested three — often early in the possession. Heck, Northwestern scored just five points in the final eight minutes of the first half.
It seems unlikely the players are going rogue once they cross half-court, ignoring the coaching staff’s directives in pursuit of their own offensive strategy. So why does it so often look as if the Wildcat players are left to their own devices?
Robbie Beran on Zavier Simpson...
I don’t mean to pick on Beran or any of the players for that matter. I’ve made it clear that I believe coaching is to blame for the majority of the program’s struggles, and a bunch of college students certainly don’t deserve to take excess criticism for their performance on the court.
But Robbie Beran needs to score when he has a guy matched up on him who’s nine inches shorter.
First, the Cats get a great look with Simpson on Beran down on the low block - they just don’t get him the ball. Buie instead dribbles the rock around awhile before forcing up a tough pull-up jumper. To be fair, Beran probably doesn’t establish the best positioning inside himself (which is a problem of its own).
But it’s fine. Opportunity missed, they’ll just take advantage of it the next time.
Oof. Not what you like to see from your six-foot-nine-inch forward. Beran will have to get tougher and stronger in the post going forward if he wants to stay in the starting lineup, especially because of...
On a night in which there was very little to smile about from a Northwestern standpoint, Jared Jones did his best to give the crowd something to cheer for.
While the Cats shot 32% from the field as a team, Jones himself was an efficient 6-of-12 - good enough for a team-high 12 points (yes, it remains sad that no player scored more than 12 and only one player besides Jones reached double figures).
In a front court consisting of Pete Nance, Robbie Beran and Young, Jones was really the only one to show any sort of offensive promise against the Wolverines. He smoothly knocked down a plethora of mid-range jumpers and was largely the only threat inside the paint all game.
Of course, Nance and Beran can also shoot (though the former has struggled mightily in recent weeks and the latter is starting to trend downwards as well), but neither possess the physicality Jones has shown throughout the season. Young, on the other hand, lacks the lethal outside stroke but is the most adept at handling the opposing team’s big man. Jones, at this point, looks to be the most versatile of the bunch.
It will be interesting to see if that earns Jones an even larger role going forward. Collins continues to stand behind Nance, but language like “he wants to be a good player” isn’t exactly the biggest vote of confidence in the short-term.
Compare that with how glowingly Collins spoke of Jones at the same press conference:
“Jared’s really coming on for us,” Collins said. “It’s been fun to see. A lot of times with young players, when you come into this level and there’s new terminology, there’s a different speed to the game, a different intensity, a different physicality. You’re seeing with Jared that things are starting to slow down a little bit.”
“His talent is coming out, and that’s what’s exciting.... As a big guy, he can roll out, make a little shot, he can drive the ball, he finishes underneath, he plays with incredible energy, he’s a good athlete, and I’m really excited about his development and where he’s headed. He’s got a chance to have a really good career.”
Hey, even in an absolute shellacking, it’s good to have something to be positive about. On to Penn State.