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Northwestern is far from flawless — yet still very much alive

The ‘Cats ran into a buzzsaw in Iowa City, one that underscored areas of improvement.

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Last week provided nearly everything one could have hoped for Northwestern basketball.

After the team went eight days without playing a game due to a COVID-19 outbreak, the Wildcats returned to the court with a triumphant edge. Chris Collins & Co. beat Wisconsin for the first time since 2018 on Monday, took care of business against Nebraska in Lincoln on Wednesday and concluded the six-day stretch with a dismantling of Minnesota in front of a raucous home crowd.

Riding a three-game win streak and with the team isolated at second in the Big Ten, there was palpable buzz surrounding NU. At the same time, 11 games remained in the season, and arguably no span would be more pivotal than the following three.

For all of the magical, 2016-17-esque aura surrounding the Wildcats, expectations were tempered on Monday night after an 86-70 loss at Iowa. Granted, the outcome should not necessarily have been unexpected — after all, Northwestern hasn’t beaten the Hawkeyes since 2017, and the ‘Cats haven’t won in Carver-Hawkeye Arena since 2012. Nevertheless, the defeat further highlighted some of the most prevalent weaknesses in Collins’ team.

To say the Wildcats played poor defense in allowing 86 points would be a bit of a hyperbole. NU forced 13 Hawkeye turnovers and contained Kris Murray for the better part of the first half. Even though the opposition tallied 86 points, the most allowed since Northwestern gave up 87 to Pitt in late November, Iowa averages 81.1 points per game. Likewise, the Hawkeyes certainly deserve merit for their lights-out shooting, converting on a gaudy 56% of shots and 48% of threes, though that isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for an uber-efficient offense that ranks third in KenPom.

Some nights, teams simply have few misses, and that’s exactly what the Hawkeyes did — and continue to do to squads around the nation. Northwestern can’t exactly beat itself up for permitting those shooting metrics, because such a prolific clip was not due to poor contests or a lack of defensive intensity.

Instead, there is a more fundamental concern that has emerged for the ‘Cats: that talented players have begun to take over, especially when it matters most.

Last night, Northwestern had no answer for big man Filip Rebraca, who scored Iowa’s first six points and accumulated 20 total points and 10 rebounds. Then, Payton Sandfort terrorized the Wildcats off the bench, posting 20 points of his own on five threes. Sandfort’s four-point play with 3:36 remaining put Iowa up 11 and effectively ended the duel. On top of that, Murray totaled 16 points despite going just 2-for-7 from deep.

It’s not only Rebraca, Sandfort or Murray being supreme players, however. Even in a 20-point victory over Minnesota, Jamison Battle collected 20 points. Against Nebraska, Keisei Tominaga scored 22 in only 33 minutes. As many can recall, Rutgers’ Cam Spencer posted 23 points and the game-winning three on Jan. 15.

Ultimately, good players will (almost invariably) score points, and often a flurry of them. There’s a reason teams have yet to find answers for the like of Zach Edey or Murray not only in the conference, but around the country. In fact, Northwestern fields two such players of its own in Chase Audige and Boo Buie, who combined for 35 on Tuesday night.

Though already stifling, the Wildcats’ defense needs to make a more concerted effort to hone in on the players who are most lethal with the ball in their hands. To allow an individual player to dominate can be overcome in games against inferior opponents such as Nebraska and Minnesota, but that issue has — and will continue to — rear its ugly head against tougher teams down the stretch. It’s one thing to allow an exceptional player to score, but it’s another to continually be unable to get any sort of stop and allow a unilateral takeover.

On the other side of the coin, Northwestern’s offense has looked somewhat improved in recent games, scoring 66 or more points in five straight games. The ‘Cats shot 47% from the field on Tuesday as Audige seemingly could not miss turnaround jumpers.

However, NU’s O continues to be prone to cold streaks, and that very concept plagued the team in Iowa City.

After a Robbie Beran shot with 16:29 remaining, Northwestern, up 48-44, didn’t score until an Audige bucket nearly three full minutes later. In that span, Iowa took a 51-48 advantage. Later, Brooks Barnhizer converted a layup with 10:32 left to put the away side up 56-55, but the ‘Cats went scoreless until a Boo Buie and-one to draw within three at the 7:38 mark. The sequence that ultimately proved the dagger? Subsequent to a Buie layup with 6:46 left, Northwestern trailed 65-61. From that point onward, Collins’ team was good on only three buckets, while Iowa amassed six (and free throws).

NU’s offense has been its Achilles’ Heel all year, and that sentiment is still yet to change. Yes, the ‘Cats can score in bunches with Audige, Buie, Ty Berry’s quick-trigger threes and even hustle buckets from Barnhizer and Nick Martinelli, but the consistent output still isn’t there — especially when it matters most.

With the flaws outlined above, it can be easy to think the team’s season is in deep peril, that its visages of dancing in mid-March for the second time ever are all for naught. In spite of Tuesday night’s forgettable showing, Northwestern is still 15-6, 6-4 in conference play and very much in control of its destiny.

The Wildcats’ next two games against Michigan and at Wisconsin may not appear significant in terms of conference ramifications, but they likely will have a major say in determining whether or not the team can turn the tide and maintain its winning form. If two or three losses stockpile, that could legitimately take the wind out of purple sails.

At the end of the day, though, Northwestern is still nine games above .500 on Feb. 1. By tightening defensive lapses and offensive dead periods, the Wildcats should still remain one of the top teams in the conference and reach their lofty goals.