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After its latest loss, Northwestern men’s basketball is in need of an identity

The ‘Cats have lost five straight games by an average of 18 points.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Northwestern Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

To characterize this Northwestern men’s basketball team is difficult. Expectations were tempered for a squad that went a mere 3-17 in the Big Ten last year and drew one of the toughest slates in the best conference in America. Even if the Wildcats improved, it might not be obvious since they’d be playing ranked competition night in and night out.

Exactly halfway through the regular season, what NU (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) is is less than obvious. The ‘Cats lack an identity, and that’s a problem. Going up against No. 5 Iowa (12-2, 6-1), which sports KenPom’s most efficient offense in the country, is a tough task with or without an identity. But NU tried to outrun the Hawkeyes in a track meet, and that’s like choosing to race Usain Bolt in a 100-meter dash.

It ended exactly as one would expect. Northwestern hung with the high-powered Hawkeyes for the first 12 minutes. Powered by sophomore guard Boo Buie’s four three-pointers and nine quick points off the bench for his backup Ryan Greer, NU led 29-28.

Then wheels came off and could not be put back on.

NU’s current five-game losing streak was encapsulated well in the final play of the half. Iowa had ripped off a 19-8 run to take a 47-37 lead, and Northwestern held the ball for what should’ve been the final possession before halftime and a chance to go into the locker room down only single digits.

Buie dribbled the ball just inside half court, while Collins shouted directions and told them to run a play with about 12 seconds left. But Iowa center Keegan Murray read Buie’s intended pass to Kopp and stepped in front of him to intercept it and convert it into a fast-break dunk.

“We were never able to kind of get back,” said head coach Chris Collins. “We tried to make a little push there early, we missed some free throws, missed layups, missed some open shots, and then they capitalized, they were able to kind of break our spirit there and get a big win.”

Iowa left no doubt coming out of the break, using its quick-strike attack to build a 20-point lead before the first media timeout of the second half. There was no apparent fight from the Wildcats on Sunday. Hawkeye head coach Fran McCaffery began pulling his starters with 12 minutes left in the game, and his team still led by nearly 30 for the rest of the way, winning 96-73. Players deep into the bench made reverse layups to the delight of their teammates while NU’s rotational players continued to launch threes to no avail.

Northwestern’s surprise 3-0 conference start was last year and feels like it was a year ago. Back then, it felt like the Wildcats had broken out of their 2019-20 selves and were ready to prove themselves as a tough out in the Big Ten. Losing teams can have identities, and NU definitely had one last year. It was young, dangerous and needed to learn how to win.

“Regardless of how much this stung, and now being 3-5 in the league, losing the last five games, really in a lot of respects — if any of you guys that follow us closely would have looked at our schedule and those eight games and said we are going to win three of them, you probably would have said we are still in a pretty good spot moving forward regardless of how we got there with three wins and now five losses,” Collins said.

Collins has a point in that fans would take 3-5 through eight games, especially after 3-17 through 20 games a year ago. But it absolutely does matter how they’ve gotten to their current record. Momentum can’t be discounted, and Collins should know that. His 2016-17 NCAA Tournament team won six straight B1G games, while five of his NU teams have gone through losing streaks of seven of more games, including three of 10 or more.

An identity fuels a team with a purpose. It’s what a team can hang its hat on and is especially helpful when things go wrong and a team needs to regroup. Sunday’s blowout couldn’t have provided a more stark contrast in terms of identities. Iowa shared the ball effortlessly to find open shooters, who shot 42% from three, while nothing came easy for Northwestern.

Throughout Collins’ tenure, a hallmark of his teams has been a commitment to defense, through both struggles and successes. Three times his teams have ranked in the top 35 nationally for defensive efficiency, and they’ve almost always ranked in the top half. That’s been missing during this losing streak, during which they’ve allowed an average of 86 points per game. It’s fair to write some of it off as facing some really tough offenses, but if the reasoning is frequently going to be about the opponent, what does that say about Northwestern’s identity?

“Our identity has been being versatile, being able to spread the floor, being able to open up cuts, open up drives, be able to shoot the ball space the floor, play with pace,” Collins said.

NU has shown its ability to be dynamic on offense but not with consistency. It’s shooting under 40% from the field and 31% from three over the last five games. Sometimes it plays good defense, too. But this graphic shows it well: Northwestern isn’t particularly bad at anything, but it isn’t particularly good at anything either.

Collins said it’s hard to see an identity when losing to top-10 teams, and that’s reasonable. After facing No. 9 Wisconsin this coming Wednesday, Northwestern has two of its easier conference games. That’s not necessarily saying much, as both Penn State and Rutgers are ranked in KenPom’s top 50, but if this team wants to show its improvement, it needs to show its identity then.