Northwestern’s 82-76 defeat at the hands of No. 8 Wisconsin left a lot of questions in its wake. The one that is perhaps most pertinent, however, will be impossible to empirically answer:
Are we sure this team isn’t cursed?
The energy was certainly sufficient in Welsh-Ryan Arena Tuesday night, as the sections allotted to students — who were able to attend a Big Ten game for the first time since the onset of the pandemic — were more crammed than University Library during reading week. So too was the team’s performance, as, in hitting 46.5 percent of their shots, the ‘Cats beat their season-long shooting percentage average of 44.1 percent even as that figure remains diluted by numbers put up against weaker non-conference opponents. Even from beyond the arc, where the Wildcats seemed to struggle, they practically matched their season average in terms of efficiency, knocking down 35 percent of their shots from deep.
Furthermore, NU was good in all the ways it typically has been against the Badgers. Most notably, the Wildcats’ assist-to-turnover ratio, a statistic that is meant to display the fluidity and efficacy with which a team moves the ball, sat at 2.375, ahead of their already nationally-leading figure of 1.963. Even in the post, where they may have been expected to fall off slightly as a result of Pete Nance’s clearly injury-hampered play, they held up strong against the nation’s eight-ranked team, getting beat on the boards by only a single rebound and topping the Badgers in points in the paint by four.
These box score stats all line up to prove that the ‘Cats played well enough to win. And yet, in the win-or-loss category that supersedes all others, they wound up faltering. It’s far from the first time that’s happened this season. So, once again, I ask: is there something larger at play here?
The signs of a twisted demon who hates purple’s work were everywhere. The Wildcats fell by six points in the end, and it’s not hard to point to a number unlikely and unfortunate events that easily could’ve flipped, putting the game in hand for the hosts.
Let’s start with what was probably the most improbable one: Chucky Hepburn’s Hail Mary-turned-three-pointer that beat the halftime buzzer.
After the game, Boo Buie said that “there’s no better defense for that” and that Hepburn “hit a 1-out-of-100 shot,” and he was absolutely right. There’s no stopping that shot.
Later, freshman phenom Johnny Davis threw up an unbalanced prayer from three, and you’ll never guess how it ended.
Davis had a phenomenal night, working Northwestern’s defense all across their side of the court to put up 27 points, a figure that led all scorers. But there's no way to describe that shot other than lucky.
Erase just those two plays from the record, and the score is even. Which brings us to an additional factor for consideration: the game’s officiating.
The Badgers drew a total of 18 times and took a total of 28 shots from the free throw line. The Wildcats, who elicited 13 foul calls, had only eight chances from the charity stripe. It certainly seemed like the referees had an easier time swallowing their whistles when Wisconsin was defending down low than when NU was, and such a distinction garnered commentary from Chris Collins in his postgame opening statement.
“I thought it was an incredibly physical game,” said Collins. “One team shot 28 free throws. The other team shot eight. So it’s hard when you’re minus-20 at the free throw line in a two possession game, it makes it difficult.”
It wouldn’t be right to say that there weren’t some bungled calls each way. Most notably for the Badgers, Davis was struck in the face in the second half, leaving his face bloodied, without a foul being called. But one call in particular will be sure to haunt Collins, his team and every Wildcat fan watching from their seats or on TV.
With 28.5 seconds left and the ‘Cats down just four after hitting threes on consecutive possessions immediately prior, Chase Audige appeared to cleanly strip Davis of the ball, leaving the floor ahead of him open to hit a shot and make it a two-point affair.
Instead, a foul was called on Audige, turning Collins and the crowd apoplectic toward the refs. Never mind that Davis missed both of the ensuing shots from the line; Northwestern had, for a moment, a play that absolutely would’ve changed the game, and it was, for lack of a better term, stolen by the officials.
“Chase cleanly stole the ball from Davis,” Collins said after the affair. “Someone didn’t see it that way,” he said after a brief but noticeable pause.
Put together, these factors were the difference between what otherwise was a performance that should've gotten Northwestern a win and the one that occurred in reality and resulted in a loss. Games like these seem exceedingly familiar to those of us who follow the program, save for the fact that the contributing pieces aren’t always insane opposing shots or tough officiating.
However different said pieces may be, though, they certainly seem connected (at this point, at least). The Wildcats now rank 351st nationally in “Luck” a stat designed by Ken Pomeroy to contrast a team’s expected statistical output with its actual output, making them, statistically speaking, the second-most unlucky team in all of Power Five basketball. So it seems that after a fourth consecutive home loss to open up conference play, Collins and his team will be forced to be more than just basketball coaches and players to achieve their aspirations.
Indeed, to make it back to March, it seems as though the ‘Cats will have to become ghostbusters, too.