The question I usually tackle in these game stories and film breakdown is centered around “why” Northwestern lost. Why does Northwestern make mistakes that shrink their already minuscule margin for error? Why doesn’t Miller Kopp get more shots from three when he’s the best shooter on the team? Why do they always lose the free throw attempt battle vs Big Ten opponents? But following the Wildcats’ (6-13, 3-12 Big Ten) 73-66 loss at the hands of No. 5 Illinois (15-5, 11-3) in Champaign last night, a different question broached my mind.
Why would things ever change?
Everything preached about team sport advises against said disposition. I get it. I played for a team once in high school that went 6-16, yet come game 22 when faced with a team possessing clearly superior talent, I was convinced in my hard of hearts that an upset win was still possible. Even after a 30-point blowout that ended the season, I held out hope that one day things would change.
For 30 minutes last night, Northwestern outplayed a team that should have beaten it handily. Yet it was the lowest of moral victories, as the Wildcats’ wretched 25-7 deficit built during an abhorrent 10 minutes of play rendered their comeback pointless of the end goal.
“We weren’t able to play the way we had prepared to play on either end,” said Chris Collins when discussing the team’s rough start. “We gave up a couple of open threes in our zone on some breakdowns, and that first 10 minutes was just not us. I thought the rest of the game, that’s more who we need to be.”
Northwestern might actually be that team Collins believes it is, a legit unit with size shooting and just enough defensive grit to compete in the nation’s stingiest conference. But it can’t be the squad it needs to be long enough for it to make a difference in the win-loss column.
Last year was all about blowing leads in untimely fashion. Similar defeats have taken place in the ‘20-21 season (see Pittsburgh, Indiana and Penn State), but over the past few weeks NU has also fallen short against Rutgers and now Illinois where it reversed orders and was doomed by slow starts.
Teams searching for optimism in the midst of downturns preach upon the need for just another round of experience, citing closer than expected point differentials as proof that things are ultimately fine. There’s merit to that. Point differential is generally a better indicator of a team’s quality than a basic record, as it incorporates the fact that not all victories and defeats are created equal. Good teams usually blow their opponents out of the water and thus have good point differentials, bad teams get killed early and often and that gets reflected in the numbers, and most everybody else is in between and at the whims of game-by-game randomness.
But losing counts all the same. Losing by seven to the Illini has the same effect on the team’s bottom line as the 81-56 shellacking Ayo Dosunmu and Co. handed out to them back on January 7. After finishing 132nd in KenPom’s team rankings a year ago, the ‘Cats are now rated as the 70th best team in the country, but that doesn’t change the fact that their winning percentage has only jumped by about six points. Depending on how many games they still have left to play cancellations and postponements always a threat, finishing with a smaller fraction of games won is still very possible.
This is not to say that Northwestern men’s basketball is a pointless endeavor, nor that following it is a lost cause (putting myself behind that second point wouldn't exactly be a savvy business decision). At some point, though, expecting a different result while constantly inputting the same ingredients is wearisome.
Northwestern is filled with some fine athletes who aren’t completely overmatched and who have bought in enough for Collins that they don’t get massacred on the court, but little mistakes and stretches of poor shooting doom them time and time again. The main difference between the ‘21 and ‘20 Wildcats is primarily a one-for-one swap of Pat Spencer for Chase Audige as the inefficient, high volume off-the-dribble shooter. Audige is an upgrade in that department, but not so much to change the scripts of these losing games.
Following a 6-1 start, many fans and analysts alike believed NU had turned that ever imposing corner. Then you backtrack and remember the three non-conference wins were against three of the worst opponents one could possibly find, a Michigan State team whose defense is a detrimental tire fire and an Indiana squad that’s relatively an even matchup with Northwestern, rendering the miraculous victory over Ohio State as the only true “Wow!” result. The Buckeyes have shot 35.5% from deep on the season, yet went 4-for-20 from behind the arc that day and could not overcome dominating performances from Miller Kopp and Boo Buie. That upset grows more hysterical with every passing day, but it’s not enough.
If you want to know why Northwestern's Offense still looks pretty good by the numbers, this might have something to do with it pic.twitter.com/BNar3ASQKp— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) February 17, 2021
Northwestern men’s basketball has been a sport at the university for over a century, and 2016-17 remains the only true breakthrough in program history. The 2017-18 Wildcats were expected to build on that momentum, yet fell apart at the seams to finish 15-17. That doesn’t make them failures. Heck, calling any group of unpaid college athletes that’s trying it’s hardest at a brutal team sport a failure is probably going too far. It just makes them like almost every other NUMBB team is the school’s history — sometimes acceptable to watch, sometimes competitive with the big boys of the Big Ten, but a unit that’s ultimately destined to come up short.
“We’re putting ourselves in position, we keep knocking on the door, and we keep coming up a little short,” said Collins postgame. “That’s frustrating for everybody. That hurts. But I’m proud of the guys for sticking with it, and I’m really confident it’s going to turn around. You wouldn’t see this kind of fight in these guys if it wasn’t going too. Our guys are getting better, and we’re going to figure it out.”
That’s exactly what a head coach should say about his struggling team that is still working to break through that wall. It’s good for the guys inside the locker room to believe that, but all evidence presented thus far this year and in seasons past make it hard for anyone on the outside to truly expect anything different in the coming weeks.