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Men’s basketball post-mortem: January: The fall from grace

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The month was full of defeat, and Northwestern made sure there was some sprinkled-in heartbreak.

Northwestern v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The start of the new year is a time for resolution. It’s a time to devote oneself to self-improving habits.

Clearly, Northwestern didn’t get the memo.

Entering 2021, Northwestern stepped as the No. 19 team in the country. The team projected to be bottom-dwellers in the Big Ten was caught roaming with the top dogs. Upset wins against Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State — along with a closer-than-advertised loss at Iowa — had Northwestern appearing as a Cinderella story within the Big Ten.

The ‘Cats walked into Ann Arbor to begin the new year, looking to hand the No. 16 Michigan Wolverines their first loss of the season and get a rebound from the tough road loss in Iowa City. Instead, they got run out of the gym.

Chris Collins’ squad went up 8-2 early, with Pete Nance being the main source of production. Once Nance left for the bench, Michigan began to play like the Big Ten Regular Season Champions they would later be crowned. The Wolverines shot 6-of-9 from three to start the game while Northwestern shot 0-for-3 from deep in that span. As the ‘Cats walked into halftime down 43-29, the once high spirit of the underdog squad was shattered.

In the second half Northwestern could do nothing to cut their deficit. Hunter Dickinson proved to be unguardable and ended with a game-high 19 points. Franz Wagner was a menace on both ends of the floor. Nance didn’t score in the second-half and Boo Buie didn’t score at all. Anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Northwestern Twitter couldn’t even muster the strength to tweet out the final score.

With the Wildcats now sitting at 3-3 in the conference, their next stretch of four games would make or break the season. They were slated against four straight ranked opponents, and if the ‘Cats could emerge from that difficult chapter with a victory or two, hope remained for the season.

The first challenge was in-state rival No. 12 Illinois. What Michigan did to Northwestern, Northwestern returned the favor to the Fighting Illini in the first half. The ‘Cats locked down on defense in the first 20 minutes to force 11 turnovers and hold Illinois to 35 percent shooting. The team seemed to have refound that December swagger and came into halftime up 43-28.

Arguably Northwestern’s best half of basketball all season was then followed by one of the worst halves known to man. Not only did Northwestern end up blowing a 15 point halftime lead, but they wound up losing by 25 points. That’s not a typo. The Wildcats were outscored by 40 in the second half and put up a lowly 13 points.

Suddenly, Northwestern had been shot back into irrelevancy. Their 15 seconds of fame were officially over. The Northwestern basketball we all know and don’t exactly love reemerged.

Despite the losing streak, though, Northwestern was still a possible bubble team for March Madness if they could find a way to right the ship. Sadly, this was just the beginning of the drought.

Chase Audige’s 25 point performance wasn’t enough to push the ‘Cats over the hump against Ohio State for a second time. Northwestern was in it the entire time, but let the Buckeyes go on a late run to lose yet another chance at a third ranked win.

Buie’s struggles continued as well. The sophomore put up five points on 1-of-9 shooting. In the four conference losses, Buie averaged an uncharacteristic 1.7 points per game off of 2-29 shooting. Regardless of the clear struggles, Collins’ still had confidence in his point guard.

The losing only continued. The Wildcats faced the Hawkeyes once again, this time at Welsh-Ryan. While the first contest was close, this one was not. Northwestern kept the margin relatively slim in the first 12 minutes, but Iowa went on a 12-0 run and never looked back. The Hawkeyes eventually won 96-73 behind a double-double from Luka Garza. Pete Nance was the main offensive producer for the ‘Cats with 16 points.

The last of the seven consecutive ranked matchups came three days later when Northwestern made the trip to Madison. Wisconsin’s suffocating defense proved king against a struggling NU offense that put up 18 points in the second half and fell 68-52. The lone bright spot that could be taken away was Audige’s 16 points, generated largely by the four threes he hit on five attempts.

Beginning to see a pattern?

Finally the ‘Cats were drawn up against an unranked opponent in Penn State. Northwestern may not be a Big Ten competitor like Wildcat faithful hoped, but surely they would be able to come out on top over a lackluster Nittany Lion squad, right? Wrong.

The two sides kept the game close and when Northwestern went up three with just under seven to play, it appeared Collins and company had reached the light at the end of the tunnel. Then Seth Lundy proceeded to score the next seven points for Penn State to push his team into a lead they never relinquished.

In a game with 18 lead changes and never one above single-digits, the Wildcats held their own but came up just short. It was, somehow, encouraging to see that while Northwestern was still blowing leads, at least they held leads deep into the second half.

To close out the month, NU hosted the unranked but highly skilled Rutgers Scarlet Knights. By now, one could probably guess how this goes. The Knights jumped out to an early lead by posting 26 points in the first 10 minutes to Northwestern’s nine. The ‘Cats climbed back into striking distance but would remain there for the entire game. In one of the all-time ugly contests, the two sides combined to shoot 21% from three with a 40 total turnovers. Rutgers never trailed but it felt as if Northwestern could make a push as long as it made a run. That never happened, and NU fell 64-56 to cap off an 0-7 month.

If anything, the Rutgers loss encompassed what January 2021 turned out to be for Northwestern basketball. They certainly had their chances in each game to continue the upset train, yet were unable to execute. More often than not, the Wildcats got in their own way and found trouble working on the offensive side of the court. No matter how much hope one could have, it was easy to see the ending before it came into fruition.

Quite literally, the month of January could not have been worse on a scale of final tallies. Coming into a month with so much promise, Northwestern took a step back and regressed to last season’s form.

On the bright side, things can only go up from here. Right?