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Repugnant defensive performance spells more trouble for Northwestern’s season

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Giving up 95 points just won’t cut it.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

If you had, hypothetically, never watched Northwestern play basketball before, and you were tuned into any of Northwestern’s loss against No. 13 Ohio State yesterday afternoon, you may have found yourself asking the question “Does Northwestern know how to play defense?”

It sure didn’t look like it.

For reference, the over/under betting line for yesterday’s game, used to estimate how many points would be scored by both teams combined, was 140.5. By the end of the game, both teams had combined for 182 points, with Ohio State scoring 95 of those points. The Buckeyes had 51 points in the first half. The Wildcats hadn’t given up 50+ points in one half since January 7, 2021.

Yes, that was the game against Illinois where Northwestern scored a total of 13 second half points and blew a 15-point halftime lead.

Jumping back to the present, Northwestern’s defense against Ohio State was nothing short of a horror show. It began with E.J. Liddell hitting every shot he took. He had 17 points in the first five-and-a-half minutes of action and was 5-for-5 from three before you could even question why Chris Collins hadn’t called a timeout. Liddell was open consistently, with most threes taken uncontested. He finished with a career-high 34 points.

“That wasn’t really the game plan,” Collins said postgame on Liddell’s early scoring. “We didn’t start the game with the defensive presence we needed to stop a player like that.”

Liddell wasn’t the only one scoring for the Buckeyes, however. Freshman guard Malaki Branham finished with 24 points and went 13-for-14 from the free throw line. As a team, Ohio State finished the game 29-of-51 (56 percent) from the field.

“You get two guys to get 58 [points], that’s going to be really tough to beat,” Collins said on Liddell and Branham. “[Branham]’s kind of become that second guy now, which makes them very dangerous.”

Consider this for a moment: Northwestern lost to Ohio State by eight points despite the fact that the Wildcats took 17 more shots than the Buckeyes. It wasn’t like the ‘Cats weren’t making their shots either — they shot 47 percent from the field and 41 percent from three on the game. Rather, it was a complete inability on Northwestern’s behalf to garner a defensive stop. Even when Ohio State went on a four-and-a-half-minute field goal drought to end the game, every time the Wildcats scored a bucket, they would foul incessantly, and OSU cashed in from the charity stripe. Ohio State iced the game without making a shot, instead finishing 26-of-27 from the free throw line.

“We just couldn’t get the stops. You can’t win a game giving up 95 points in the Big Ten,” Collins said. “Every time we made a run, they found a way to get themselves to the free throw line.”

Here’s a stat for you: since 2018, Northwestern is 6-22 in games decided by five points or less. While that did not become 6-23 last night, it seems the Wildcats simple cannot find a way to win in close games. Whether it be blowing a late lead or never being able to get a defensive stop, the ‘Cats seem cursed in close ones.

As Northwestern continues its season, it’s likely that this depressing defensive performance will end up being the exception, not the norm. With that being said, the Wildcats are now 1-3 in Big Ten play and are desperate for a conference win after blowing leads to Michigan State and Penn State and then being unable to stop Liddell and Company.

Looking ahead, the schedule doesn’t get much easier. Sure, the Wildcats host Maryland — a team they’ve already beaten once — on January 12. After that, though, NU will travel to East Lansing to take on Michigan State and then play host to Wisconsin on January 18. The ‘Cats finish the month of January at Purdue, at Michigan and home against Illinois. Is there any chance they go .500 over these next six games? Probably not. What’s far more likely is that Northwestern will keep it close in most of these games, only to flounder down the stretch. The Wildcats may be blown out in a game or two, but I’d put my money on them faltering late in most.

After all, that’s just what we’ve all come to expect.