Nobody woke up on Sunday morning thinking Northwestern was going to waltz in to Mackey Arena and take down the No. 4 Purdue Boilermakers. If anything, the average Wildcat viewer expected a competitive battle for the majority of the game (check) that ended with NU losing by about seven points and further totaling their Luck metric in KenPom (actually not check this time).
Even without its high-profile NBA draft prospect/human lightning bolt Jaden Ivey, Purdue entered a comfortable favorite over Northwestern and rolled to an 80-60 win behind 22 points of the hot-shooting Sasha Stefanovic and a double-double that Zach Edey needed only 21 minutes of play to compile.
You scroll up and down the timeline and most of the complaints from people with vested interests in Northwestern basketball revolve around the shot selection of guards Boo Buie and Chase Audige, and subsequently, the lack of touches and shots left for Pete Nance and Ryan Young (Buie and Audige combined for 19 shot attempts, while Nance and Young combined for only 10).
These gripes are reasonable, but shot selection is not the reason the ‘Cats came up short in yesterday’s game. Northwestern lost to Purdue because Northwestern was always going to lose to Purdue. Matt Painter has a title-contending juggernaut and quite possibly the two most effective centers in college basketball. Chris Collins captains what is best defined as a good 9-8 team.
At the end of the day, the Wildcats are still a 9-8 team, though! No team with March Madness ambitions should have a worse record than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The little things didn’t ultimately matter for Northwestern against Purdue. The only game script where it could pull off an upset of that magnitude was the best player (Pete Nance) draining seven threes and getting the two star centers on the opposing side in foul trouble. Instead, Nance got into foul trouble himself off of some pretty weak calls, and the little things that did break right for NU (hot three-point shooting from Buie, athletic flashes on both ends from Ju Roper, decent interior defense when Edey had his back to the basket) were negligible factors.
That’s why everyone loses their minds when Northwestern drops games to teams like Penn State and Maryland, often due to the smallest of lapses and misjudgments — because Northwestern has no margin for error. You have to enter each season knowing that you’re going to stack up losses against the conference’s elite and that you have to be Chris Paul-level drill sergeants in winnable Big Ten games, because letting any one of them slip out of your hands is catastrophic.
Here’s a quick quiz for you, the loyal and perhaps diseased with Northwestern-sports brain fan — which Northwestern men’s basketball teams have finished over .500 in conference play?
If you said the 2016-17 NCAA Tournament team, you’re correct. But more importantly, that would be the only correct answer since 1968!
In over 50 years of the sport, Northwestern has only once beaten its Big Ten foes more than it has lost to them, and even in ‘17, the ‘Cats still held only a 10-8 conference record. That’s not exactly great enough for a podium finish.
The Big Ten is well-respected and it’s very possible for a team to meander to a sub-.500 conference record yet end up in the field of 68, but there needs to be an understanding in Evanston that that is the ceiling based on all prior evidence. Once you start 2-6 in conference play and still have two matchups with Illinois and another with Purdue down the road, you’re all but screwed.
Dwelling on the Purdue loss does nothing. It’s a good competitive mindset to enter each game thinking you can win, but post-game, you should be able to reflect and realize that sometimes you just get eaten by the big monster. He’s a predator for a reason, you know.
But the same cannot be said for the five losses that preceded the events in West Lafayette, particularly to teams in Penn State and Maryland that only have three and two conference wins, respectively. Losing to those teams put this basketball program in a hole that it simply does not have the raw talent to climb out of.
The ‘Cats have 12 games left before the conference tourney, and per BartTorvik are projected to finish 14-15, 7-13 in Big Ten play. Maybe that’s too pessimistic, seeing that there are wins out there to be had against Nebraska, Minnesota and Rutgers, who make up five of NU’s final 12 showdowns.
But Northwestern better come with fine tuned shot selection and a composed nature to those games, because at this point, the Wildcats can’t let any more easy ones slip through their hands. Even then, they probably still need to slay one more monster to reach that sweet 68-team field they’ve missed for the past five years.