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Offensive struggles continue to plague Northwestern, bringing its season to a crossroads

Big Ten play is here. So are many of NU’s same mistakes that have been around since early November.

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You’d be hard-pressed to find someone outside of Evanston who thought Northwestern would beat — or even come close to upsetting — No. 3 Ohio State coming into Wednesday night. This is an undefeated Buckeyes squad that came into Welsh-Ryan Arena without two of its veteran starters in Madison Greene and 2022 first-team All-Big Ten member Jacy Sheldon, yet was still favored to win by 17 points.

So, even though OSU almost doubled that margin with its 81-48 victory over the ‘Cats, the result isn’t particularly surprising. A team that has played a grand total of two games that were decided by fewer than 10 points dominated a team that lost its three games against ranked opponents by an average of over 29 points coming into Wednesday night. That by itself isn’t a reason to panic, nor should it be.

Neither is Northwestern’s rough start to the season. Echoing nearly every season preview of the Wildcats, it’s difficult for teams that aren’t recruiting powerhouses to immediately replace a program-defining player like Veronica Burton. Consider the fact that Burton ran the offense for four straight seasons, and a seamless adjustment is almost impossible.

Transitions are supposed to be hard (just ask our friends in Iowa City about that). However, it’s cause for concern when issues that Burton didn’t single-handedly prevent not only pop up, but last. That’s what turns transitional months into transitional seasons.

From the moment Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff threw out his full-court press, it was clear the Buckeyes wanted to play at a frenetic pace. It’s what has propelled the OSU offense to a scoring average of nearly 90 points per game on less than a point per possession, which forced Northwestern to slow the game down to stay within reach. It made sense. By marching its way down the court to methodically find open looks for perimeter threats like Hailey Weaver, NU was able to keep the game close through the first quarter.

But at some point after the Buckeyes extended their lead well into double digits, Northwestern’s offense failed to dictate the game flow at all. Instead, it slowly responded to OSU defenders — especially in the backcourt when Sydney Wood, Kaylah Rainey and Caroline Lau were trying to break down the press. Not only did that allow Ohio State’s guards to swarm the ball and trap, it also kept the ‘Cats from getting out in open space for quick scores early in the shot clock.

On the other side of half court, that indecisiveness gave way to ample telegraphed passes and highly-contested shots. It culminated in an ugly 27% shooting percentage from the field, which gave way to an even uglier 25-0 difference in fast break points.

Those marks mirrored the same mistakes NU made almost two months ago in its first game of the season, when it lost to Oregon 100-57. The build-up of a series of avoidable mistakes, as well as the high quality of Northwestern’s opponents and those teams’ ability to capitalize on most miscues, doomed the ‘Cats in both games. The fact that Northwestern is posting its worst offensive rating since Her Hoop Stats began tracking the metric in 2009-10 makes avoiding those lapses even more critical.

Eliminating those simple giveaways falls on the team as a whole, not just a player or two. And even if one can attribute those issues to the difficulty of the post-Burton transition, they typically take fewer than 12 games to work out.

It’s true that Joe McKeown’s squad has endured a remarkably difficult non-conference slate — its strength of schedule ranked 28th in the country without even taking the 14-0, third-ranked Buckeyes into account. It’s also true that it won’t get much easier for the ‘Cats. After games against Michigan State and Illinois next week, NU will have to face No. 4 Indiana and No. 12 Iowa back-to-back.

As was the case Wednesday night, it would be unfair to expect Northwestern to hang with a national title contender because it hasn’t shown it is capable of doing so. It is reasonable, however, to ask that the ‘Cats commit fewer egregious mistakes — which make it much harder for NU to overcome its shooting struggles — on both sides of the ball.

Facing a beatable yet talented team like the Spartans, who played Ohio State and Oregon down to the wire, will speak volumes about how much progress Northwestern has made in its two months of play. If Northwestern can cut down on the early foul trouble and giveaways that left its transition defense vulnerable against the Buckeyes, then it will prove that what appears to be a transitional year won’t get much rougher than this.

Do the opposite, and the transitional year will become just that.