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Three takeaways from Northwestern’s confusing win against Jackson State

Embracing the good and the bad.

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

The final score of the game doesn’t tell half the story of what the ‘Cats put on last night. Ty Berry and Ryan Langborg combined for half of Northwestern’s total points, and the Wildcats never trailed after the midpoint of the first half. This game was a tale of two halves: the first showed the lack of defense seen earlier in the season, but the second made it harder to tell if NU’s defense was good or if Jackson State’s offense just couldn’t make a shot. Below are three takeaways from the Wildcats’ last non-conference matchup of 2023-24.

Ty Berry’s consistency is key to Northwestern’s offense

In the first three games of the season, Berry gave the Wildcats a scare, averaging only five points per game, and shooting not even 40% against their opponents. Although all of those games were wins, those first matchups were far closer than they should’ve been. In the first tournament match against Rhode Island, Berry scored 13 points, eight of which occurred in the first 12 minutes of the game. While this was a glimpse of shooting struggles, it wasn’t the whole issue. When the Wildcats get into scoreless lulls, they look to Berry to hit a three or an easy jumper to get the team hot again. But early in the season, those shots were not falling.

Nonetheless, the 6-foot-3 guard has scored double-digits in six of the last eight games, not to forget scoring zero points against DePaul a few weeks back. It’s nights like that that Berry can’t have with Big Ten play, especially when Northwestern plays a stretch of Illinois, Ohio State and Purdue in the last week of January. Once Berry finds consistency in his scoring, the offense can reach a whole new level.

Going into conference play, this on-again, off-again defense will not survive

In the last game against Arizona State, Northwestern looked as aggressive as ever, pulling boards from every direction. Yet once again, it felt like the team playing the Tigers was the same scrambling team that lost to Chicago State.

At the opening of the game, Jackson State was grabbing all the rebounds, offensive and defensive, totaling 20 boards by the end of the 1st half. And despite his main job to help out in the post, Matthew Nicholson only hauled in a single offensive rebound in his time on the floor, along with his four points.

As Coach Collins continues to look for the right rhythm for his starting big, Blake Preston’s contributions on the floor have proved to help the defense flow. While the stats may not show it, teams struggle in their approach when Preston’s at the five in comparison to running circles around Nicholson.

But don’t get me wrong: Nicholson was not the primary issue, as a collective there seemed to be no sense of reason behind defensive plays. Nicholson had a big block at the start of the second half to keep the Tigers behind. However, just six minutes into the game, Brooks Barnhizer ran into the paint in an attempt to defend a pick-and-roll, leaving Jackson State’s Jayme Mitchell wide-open behind the arc. Easy shots from deep continued throughout the game for JSU simply from the ‘Cats leaving their man open. In the last two games, NU has held its opponent to 46 — but by the end of the first, the Tigers had 33.

Looking ahead, Northwestern is tasked to compete against Illinois, whose offense is practically a clinic at every game, averaging 81 points per contest. If the ‘Cats don’t find a solid strategy to stop their shooters, nor the same aggressiveness as last week, they don’t have a chance. However, due to the recent suspension of Terrence Shannon Jr., the matchup may be different.

Buie needs his supporting cast

Boo Buie has absolutely shown his ability to go get shots and create for the guys around him. Thing is, it’s not a one-man gig. Buie needs his squad to shine some extra light, especially going into the tough conference games. On nights like the last, where Langborg and Berry are on fire, it allows Buie to take a bit of a breather and focus on being the ultimate shot-creator for the Wildcats.

But it’s key that his surrounding core in Barnhizer, Berry and Langborg are producing. The attention that Buie commands is the perfect distraction when Langborg’s ready to hit from deep, or when Barnhizer slices through defenses.

The problem comes when his cast goes dark. Teams like Nebraska and Rutgers, with their top-20 scoring defenses, can easily turn the tables. That’s when the ‘Cats need everyone they can get on both sides of the floor, from Barnhizer to Nicholson and even Clayton, to bring their A-game. It’s not just about Buie; it’s about the whole crew making noise on the court, especially up against Northwestern’s next opponents.