After a brutal stretch of two games against highly-ranked opponents Illinois and Purdue that broke a three-game win streak, it seemed like the Northwestern Wildcats were finally going to be in good position to get back on the saddle Saturday afternoon.
Sure, no game against any Big Ten team is a walk in the park. But even on the road, a Minnesota team reeling from a brutal offseason, sitting at 3-12 in conference play and out one of their key players should’ve made for a favorable matchup for a veteran NU squad that needed a win to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive, right?
The ‘Cats were obliterated at Williams Arena by the Golden Gophers, all but eliminating any slim remaining chances they had at reaching the Big Dance through an at-large bid. Barring an improbable title run at the Big Ten Tournament in Indy, this undeniably talented team and its fans will once again watch college sports’ grandest event from their couches.
How did Saturday’s loss — which most, given the circumstances, at least expected to be a competitive ball game for NU — get so damn ugly? It started in the first half when the Gophers simply refused to miss a series of three-pointers and the Wildcats were equally hesitant to get in their way. The hosts went 7-for-11 from three to start on a diet of shots that were largely uncontested or under-contested. On the offensive end, Northwestern largely took what was given, cashing in on a few easy points off of some open mid-rangers from Pete Nance. As a cumulative result, the Wildcats trailed a game they were favored by 4.5 in by 21 at the 2:39 mark in the first half.
I should state clearly that it’s not always a bad thing to stick to what’s simple on offense in college basketball. A team as weak as Minnesota will always offer some exploitable holes in its defense, and the ‘Cats did a good job of finding those vulnerabilities and capitalizing on them when they presented themselves in the first half. With that being said, when you’re allowing your opponents continuous opportunities at three points and they’re hitting shots, some extra energy is necessary on offense to get back into the swing of things. On offense, Chris Collins’ team looked uninspired at best, half-asleep at worst at various points throughout Saturday’s affair.
Even despite its lack of a containing defense and its lethargic offensive efforts, NU still looked to be in position to compete in the second half after a 13-4 run to start the latter 20 minutes that left UMN’s lead at only seven points. The Gophers themselves looked out of sorts in this stretch, and the ‘Cats didn’t do anything fantastic in terms of point production to make it a game again. However, some threes fell, some transition possessions were largely seamless, and it felt like there was at least some chance that they’d find a way to pull out a win after getting ripped to shreds in the first 20 minutes.
But, as they did all night, the Wildcats simply lacked the energy to keep their foot on the gas, and what soon transpired doomed them once and for all. In immediate response to the run, the Golden Gophers hit a whopping eight shots from the field without a miss, three of which came from beyond the arc. As their opponents regained their confidence on their end of the floor, the ‘Cats once again failed to do anything to hold down the fort offensively in the meantime, putting up just two points in a span of nearly six minutes. As such, the Gopher lead was soon back to 21, the game was back to ugly, and the Wildcats’ postseason hopes back to practically gone.
After Wednesday’s expected and understandable loss to the elite Boilermakers, Collins noted that the strategy for NU just wasn’t where it needed to be. “I’ll watch the film, as well as the staff,” he said. “We’ll try to put together a better game plan for Saturday so we can function better on that end.”
If the “better game plan” Collins spoke of was to let the Golden Gophers either win or lose the game themselves without putting much of an effort into creating an opposing front, then his team executed it to a T. Otherwise, the concerns about whether Collins can direct and motivate the team to play in an efficient, strategic and successful manner gained more traction Saturday than they have at any point this season. With few games left on the schedule and few reachable and desirable goals remaining for the Wildcats to reach, it is, perhaps, past time to begin wondering where exactly this team is headed in the long-term.