Heading into tipoff last night, Welsh-Ryan Arena gave off the energy — and tension — that a must-have game presented in front of Northwestern. To some extent, it was. A loss to a Michigan team with a NET ranking well past 70, at home, would put a damper on the tournament dreams that have lingered around Evanston since December.
While Chris Collins’ team was playing its fifth game in 11 days against a Wolverine squad with three days of rest, the quick turnarounds haven’t appeared to severely affect the ‘Cats throughout the past two weeks. But there was always a possibility that NU would hit a wall during this stretch.
Well, spoiler alert, it did. Regardless of whether it was because Northwestern’s year-long offensive struggles manifested themselves, or the result of the fatigue catching up or some combination of both happening, the ‘Cats put up one of their worst offensive performances of the season at a really inconvenient time.
Not only did NU fail to get anything going from beyond the arc, as shooters not named Boo Buie went 0-of-13 from three-point land, it also couldn’t find open looks. That led to many contested jumpers late in the shot clock from Chase Audige, who struggled mightily with just 10 points on 4-of-16 shooting. The Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Watch List honoree played well on defense and contributed to a rough offensive start for Michigan, but even on that end, he committed two fouls closing out on three-pointers, one of which Joey Baker made.
Audige hasn’t had many of these games, which is a testament to how well he has played this year. Ironically, the only other game where he shot 25% or worse on more than 10 shots also came against Michigan back on Jan. 15. While his rough night came at an inopportune time, it’s not particularly concerning in the long term. What was worrisome is the lack of production outside of Audige and Buie.
It didn’t help that Robbie Beran and Ty Berry each played fewer than 20 minutes, though Collins noted in the postgame presser that their lack of rest during the jam-packed two-week stretch played a factor in his decision to sit both players for a large chunk of the second half. But that didn’t change the fact that NU’s two stars, who have each averaged about 36 minutes per game during this five-game stretch (Audige hasn’t played fewer than 30 minutes since Dec. 20!) needed a third scoring option for Northwestern to hang with Michigan.
“We’ve got to get more out of the guys outside of the two guards,” Collins said. “Because you have a night like tonight when maybe Chase doesn’t have it going, and you can’t win in this league with just one guy producing. You’ve got to have a team.”
Outside of the Nebraska game, when Berry erupted for 21 points in the first half, the ‘Cats have particularly struggled to provide that help early in games. It led to slow starts against the Huskers and Minnesota, but the difference was that Northwestern has been able to close well. That is, until Tuesday against Iowa.
Like against the Hawkeyes, NU found itself in a tight game at the beginning of the second half despite their shooting struggles. However, it wasn’t deadeye shooting from the Wolverines that did Northwestern in this time, but rather, a little bit of everything. From Michigan’s tenacity on the offensive glass to its stout perimeter defense, Juwan Howard’s squad flat-out dominated the ‘Cats from the under-16 break onward.
You could chalk that up to tired legs, or getting home from Iowa City at 3 a.m. on Wednesday with another game on deck fewer than 40 hours later and school in full swing. And that is absolutely fair. But life isn’t, and the fact is that Northwestern has to overcome that fatigue again on Sunday night against Wisconsin to keep its March Madness odds favorable.
“We aren’t really thinking about playing X amount of games in a certain amount of days,” Buie said. “We’re just coming in with the mentality of we have an opportunity in front of us. Each opportunity is significant and we’ve got to make the most of each opportunity.”
Northwestern hasn’t lost three games in a row this season. With a trip to Columbus followed by clashes against No. 1 Purdue and No. 21 Indiana after the Wisconsin game, it’s critical that NU generates some positive momentum on Sunday.
Otherwise, what has seemed like a magical season could crash right back down to Earth in the blink of an eye.