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Despite another year of experience, Northwestern keeps making the same mistakes

It seems like NU is always fighting uphill, no matter the opponent.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Follow the ‘Cats for the past two years, and you’re more than familiar with the phrase, “We’re a young team that’s learning how to win.”

That mantra was reiterated by head coach Chris Collins following many a Wildcat loss during the 2019-20 season. The constant excuse post-loss felt a bit cliche last season, but there was no denying its truth. Of the 6,250 available minutes Northwestern played that year, 4,329 were allocated to underclassmen, equating to a whopping 69.2% of the potential time on the court, per CBB Reference. They were indeed young and losses were expected.

Not so anymore. Freshmen have become sophomores, sophomores now juniors, and yet it was a Purdue team teeming with youth that beat the Wildcats 75-70 late Saturday afternoon. PU’s four freshmen not only helped the Boilermakers to victory but took the lead themselves, combining for a whopping 53 points without sacrificing efficiency, as they posted a cumulative true shooting percentage of 68.1%.

One could easily dismiss this comparison by pointing toward the ever supposed talent gap between Northwestern and a quality Big Ten program such as Purdue. It’s true that Matt Painter’s recent batch of recruits grade out better, as 247Sports gave his a 2020 class a 0.9304 rating, whereas the 2018 and 2019 classes brought in by Collins graded out with ratings of 0.9110 and 0.9011, respectively. While guys such as Brandon Newman and Jaden Ivey (who finished with a career-high 20 points) are likely not one-and-done superstars, they’ve been projected as future NBA players should they develop well over the next few years, something that can rarely be said of a Northwestern basketball player. So yes, a young Purdue team should be better than an NU squad full of greenhorns.

But the idea often sold is that young teams suffer due to poor decisions on the court rather than a lack of talent, and in last night’s affair, the ‘Cats were the ones who couldn’t stop shooting their own feet.

“I keep calling them self-inflicted wounds, [the] unforced turnovers,” Collins said postgame. “Maybe a quick, bad shot at a tough time when you really need to execute and try to get a better one. And then on the defensive end, having a breakdown or giving up a layup or a dunk in transition when a team is struggling to score [in the half court]. We got to do a little bit better job, but I think everybody saw that our guys played very hard.”

Those self-inflicted wounds are not uniform in appearance. Some of those are the simple failures that are bound to happen in any competitive basketball game, be it an errant pass or an illegal screen from Pete Nance that negated what would have been a third straight three for the boom-or-bust Boo Buie.

Those certainly need to be curtailed, as 15 turnovers (13 of which happened in roughly the first 30 minutes) are far too many for a team hoping to pull a road upset.

Others are more institutional and strategic in nature, such as the way the Wildcats chose to double Purdue big man Trevion Williams. Collins was pleased postgame with how his team limited the Boilermakers’ star center.

“He [Williams] was averaging almost 18 and 10 coming into this game,” said Collins. “You got to make a decision, do you want to let their big guys get single coverage and play one on one in the post, or do you want to give some help? We chose to give some help try to make it hard, and I thought we did a good job on Williams.”

Doubling isn’t an inherently flawed plan, but doubling from a position where Williams has the second defender in his line of sight. He’s one of the best passing centers in America, consistently burning opponents out of the post when they fall asleep against a cutter or don’t have their head turned for a potential skip pass. That’s exactly what NU did all night, sending doubles from defenders within the paint that Williams was already aware of, and he made them pay.

The decision to double is indeed a tough one, as Williams had some success scoring over Nance and Ryan Young inside, and for the season is ranked in the 66th percentile when faced with single coverage in a post-up, according to Synergy Sports. However, he’s been even more deadly when facing a hard double team, as Synergy pegs him in the 87th percentile in those situations with a sizzling 1.138 points scored per possession.

Due to his own foul trouble and the success of Purdue’s freshmen foursome, Williams only registered 16 minutes on the night, though his team won those minutes by the same five-point margin by which NU lost. In the minutes he didn’t play, the Boilermakers held steady by working for open threes, getting to the rim when Northwestern committed one of its costly turnovers and calmly hitting 23 of their 24 foul shots.

That final stat at surface looks like an unfortunate night of good shooting against the ‘Cats, but it also speaks to the difference between the two programs. Purdue runs a tight ship with very few unsealable cracks appearing, and the ones that do pop up (such as a low scoring night for team’s best player), can be filled by improved shooting from the youths. Northwestern makes mistakes and has no plexiglass seal to apply, simply having to hope its opponents do something worse.

There are seven games remaining in this now eerily familiar season. Northwestern will always have that December hot streak and a win over a potential No. 1 seed Ohio State come March, but with how things currently stand, ending the season with seven more Ls is not out of the question in the slightest.