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Northwestern can’t afford to let the little things beat them anymore

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The simple mistakes need cleaning up.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Following a 64-56 defeat at the hands of Rutgers, Chris Collins was displeased with his team’s performance in its eight straight loss but remained optimistic about its overall outlook.

“It’d be different if we just rolled out here and got blitzed every night,” said Collins. “It’s a five-point game with two and a half minutes to go against a team that’s been in the top 20 most of the year. You have to be a pretty good team to beat Ohio State, to win at Indiana and to beat Michigan State.”

It’s true Northwestern has talented players and has improved from last year, but it’s not blessed enough to emerge victorious over Big Ten foes unless it plays a brand of basketball that’s light on mistakes, and Collins himself recognized postgame how the little things hurt the ‘Cats.

“I just think a couple plays here, a couple of plays there...we left some points on the table,” the head coach said.

Each small moment of slippage in Northwestern’s play can feel insignificant when it occurs, but squandering repeated scoring opportunities through sloppy play eventually culminates in losses.

Take the following clip, for example.

Miller Kopp heads toward the elbow, likely desiring to set an off-ball screen for Boo Buie to move toward the strong side, giving Ryan Young an easy outlet to the team’s second best three-point shooting threat. However, Buie fades toward the free throw line as if he was trying to set a screen himself, Anthony Gaines further clogs the paint with his cut, and Young misses the open skip to Chase Audige, resulting in this troubling screenshot.

String together several early possessions along that line, and the result is a dreadful one point-per-minute scoring rate from the ‘Cats over the first 11 minutes of action.

The tiny mistakes reared their ugly head in the game’s closing moments, as NU fumbled away any chance it had with three live dribble turnovers in four possessions. The plays were run as they were supposed to be, but a few missteps derailed each scoring attempt.

“I didn’t think it was execution,” said Young in reference to the team’s failure in the final minutes. “I dribbled the ball off my knee when I got double teamed in the post, but we were trying to get that look, we got the double team [we wanted]. Guys were open and I fumbled the ball. The last four minutes of games are when you need to be your best.”

Young was correct in his own self-rebuke, as Kopp did veer into an open space from behind the arc, but the sophomore center was unable to fire the necessary skip pass.

As has been the case all year (and really, the entirety of the past two seasons), the ‘Cats faltered in crunch time. But perhaps such dreaded late game woes could be avoided if NU was sharper at the finer points of the first 36 minutes of a game.

Pete Nance is the team’s best or second-best player dependent on who you ask and what you on-court abilities you value most. Yet in Sunday’s loss, the junior forward’s struggles with reading rolling and slipping situations as a ball screener cost the Wildcats six to nine potential points.

Even when he did slip correctly to beat a switch from the Rutgers defense (shoutout Nekias Duncan for popularizing that mantra), Audige was unable to find him moving to the open space, and it’s another key missed opportunity.

It’s tough to tell whether those first and third lapses are personally on Nance or if they’re a symptom of coaching that is yet to correct his mistakes. While it would be good to know where the blame should go, it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things for this program. Either way, the same problem plagues Northwestern’s men’s basketball — it exists in what’s been the toughest and deepest conference in college for the past 10 years, and it plays a style of ball riddled with little things that need to be fixed, yet never are.

The Iowas, Ohio States and Michigans of the world have room to miss an open passing lane or screw up the play design because they’re blessed with rosters choc full of future NBA starters and benches of four-star recruits. Northwestern has brought in some more high profile names during Collins’ tenure, but the gap still exists, and not enough has been done to close it.

One might think the slogan of the Big Ten is that off-nights don’t exist, and it seems fairly reasonable when KenPom predicts NU to lose every one of its remaining games save for the season finale against Nebraska. Collins indicated that the team only needs one outcome to swing their way to start turning things around, and that thinking about winning multiple games in a row would be missing the forest through the trees.

“If we can get one here, you can get some momentum going,” he said. “And that’s what that’s what we’re going to do. We’re not going to worry about winning five, six or seven games in a row, we just need to try to win one. That’s what we tried to do tonight. That’s what we got to try to do next weekend when we play Purdue.”

Focusing on things one game at a time might be the right approach, but until Northwestern starts cleaning up the more microscopic parts of their game, that sacred victory might require a long wait.