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Northwestern’s inexcusable loss to Chicago State embodies a scary early-season trend

The Wildcats’ record may be 7-2, but below the surface, things are far less pretty.

NCAA Basketball: Chicago State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into Wednesday night, what if I told you that:

  • Northwestern was ranked for the earliest time in a season since the 2020-21 season, and was a 24.5-point favorite as it sought its first win as a ranked team since 2017
  • The Wildcats were taking on a team that was 3-9, 335th in KenPom and against which they were 13-0
  • Boo Buie would score 23 points, while getting supplementary contributions from Ryan Langborg (18 points) and Brooks Barnhizer (13 points, six rebounds, three steals)

Any rational fan would’ve expected a cruise-control win for the Wildcats. Yet the team’s ninth game of the season against Chicago State proved anything but.

Instead of dominating a much weaker opponent, the ‘Cats made a cavalcade of mistakes, plus had zero answers for Wesley Cardet Jr. — who notched a gaudy 30 points on 13-for-21 shooting.

For one, turnovers plagued NU the entire evening. Chris Collins’ squad amassed 14 of them, with the Cougars racking up 13 steals. That mark was the most by the Wildcats so far this season, and a rather shocking performance given that the team paces the entire Big Ten in turnover margin, averaging 8.6 per game even after yesterday. Most frustratingly, such giveaways seemed the byproduct of sloppy and/or lackadaisical basketball: look no further than Nick Martinelli’s pass being knocked away (and then dunked) by Noble Crawford, or Ty Berry dribbling out of bounds off the inbound with only 3:52 remaining.

On the note of Berry, the senior regressed in a big way after buoying Northwestern over the last few games. No. 3 scored just three points, making one of seven shots (and one of five from deep) on a miraculous last-second bank heave. On top of that, he had three turnovers and four fouls. As two of the team’s last three games (vs. No. 1 Purdue/Chicago State) have indicated, Berry is pretty instrumental to Northwestern’s success, both in single-contest outcomes and over the course of a full year.

Moreover, the ‘Cats shot only 65% from the free throw line, which actually marked the third game of having that mark or lower from the stripe. Barnhizer particularly struggled from the line, going 3-for-6, but a miss from Matthew Nicholson on a would-be and-one was costly with the team trailing 65-63.

Collectively, it’s not hard to see why all of those ingredients can brew up a trap game loss for the No. 25 team in the nation. What’s most alarming, however, is the phenomenon of not seizing momentum throughout the course of the game.

Following a slam by Nicholson, the Wildcats led the Cougars 33-25 with 4:09 left in the first half; it seemed as if there was sufficient breathing room, and that Northwestern was in a relatively sound spot. Instead, CSU enjoyed a 10-0 run, including eight points single-handedly coming from Jahsean Corbett. That left tension in Welsh-Ryan Arena as NU sleepwalked through the end of the first half.

To start the second period, things didn’t turn around much to begin, with the ‘Cats making one of their first five shots and losing by seven nearly four minutes in. However, the team found the bottom of the rim much more efficiently from there, racing to a 60-52 advantage after a strong layup by Barnhizer and two free throws from Nick Martinelli. With only 8:52 left, it finally seemed as if the Wildcats could ease off the gas pedal.

As they demonstrated the entire night, though, the Cougars had one more roar left. CSU exploded to the tune of another 10-0 run, and Cardet became a one-man wrecking crew by weaving for a layup and drilling a three over Nicholson to give Chicago State a 70-67 lead — one it wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the game.

To have a 3-9 team go on those types of stretches multiple times in a matchup is bad enough. But what’s more frightening is that long lapses have become commonplace for Northwestern, which has routinely played down to competition.

The season opener against Binghamton didn’t look radically different, with NU trailing 39-36 at halftime. The team’s affair against Western Michigan was also significantly closer than anticipated, in part because the Broncos went on an 8-0 run in the middle of the second half. Play from Uncasville, Connecticut revealed much of the same, with the ‘Cats in full throttle to start but then yielding enormous advantages to both Rhode Island and Mississippi State. Hell, even the win against the Boilermakers didn’t come without extra anxiety: Zach Edey was able to tie the game in the final seconds of regulation after a dramatic floater by Buie, and even with a 90-86 lead in OT, Braden Smith notched two quick free throws that made things tighter than necessary.

Frankly, no team is perfectly unblemished, especially this early into a season lasting at least five months. Then again, the idea of Northwestern not capitalizing on momentum and letting opponents stay alive is one that’s already reared its ugly head more than it should.

Despite the ‘Cats becoming fodder for jokes (if not astonished looks at box scores) around the college basketball landscape Wednesday and Thursday, it’s not as if all hope is lost. The team has 22 games remaining, and is still 1-0 against conference competition. For as devastating as this defeat felt against Chicago State, it very plausibly may become an afterthought if Collins’ team can post major wins over top competition; likewise, it probably wouldn’t be the only reason if Northwestern were to miss the NCAA Tournament.

At the same time, the urgency is starting to mount for the Wildcats, even on Dec. 14. For one, this caliber of a loss can’t happen again — in 2023-24, or for the remainder of Collins’ newly extended tenure. More immediately, it’s a wake-up call for a team that desperately needs to avoid long stretches of bad basketball that awaken opponents, and which will need to better stack big shots and plays in key moments as a relentless Big Ten slate approaches.