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More work to be done for Northwestern after narrow win over Wisconsin

The Wildcats skated by the Badgers, but it wasn’t the prettiest of performances.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Wisconsin Kayla Wolf-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday night in Madison, Wisc. proved to be a cathartic experience of sorts for Northwestern basketball.

For one, the team snapped its two-game losing streak, which spanned from Tuesday night until Sunday afternoon — but felt like an eternity in early February. The Wildcats put an end to any talks of long-standing disappointment by gutting out a 54-52 win over the Badgers.

Speaking of downing Wisconsin, NU did so in the Kohl Center for the first time in four years, securing a season sweep of a key Big Ten rival in the span of two weeks.

More broadly, the ‘Cats moved to 16-7, guaranteeing that, with eight regular-season games to go, the team will end the regular season with a winning record — something that hasn’t occurred since the famed 2016-17 campaign.

All of these elements feel exceedingly positive. After all, head coach Chris Collins was doused by water bottles in the locker room to celebrate a seventh conference win, and a heart-stopping one at that.

The aphorism of “a win is a win” certainly holds true, especially in this time of the year. Every team needs to secure as many victories as it can, especially those teetering on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament. Following Sunday night, NU’s odds of making the tourney have jumped 21.4%, a massive spike based on outcome (especially considering that losing would have cost 8.6% in chances).

At the same time, Northwestern’s game in the Kohl Center was not a triumphant, resounding or convincing victory. If anything, it underscored many of the same issues that have plagued the team, both recently and all year, and have yet to be corrected.

After shooting only 4-of-16 from the field against Michigan on Thursday, guard Chase Audige was again cold in Madtown, going 5-of-13 for only 11 points. Audige certainly hit some big shots, including a turnaround jumper to give NU a 50-49 lead with 2:55 to go, and he secured the game-winning rebound as well. At the same time, the redshirt senior missed a potential game-ender, after which Wisconsin’s Chucky Hepburn (briefly) gave Wisconsin a 51-50 advantage, and didn’t appear nearly as dominant as he’s looked for much of 2022-23.

More generally, NU’s offense was again pitiful. Yes, the Wildcats shot 47% from the field, but they made only 27% of three-pointers and scored only eight points off of turnovers. In fact, Northwestern did not score from the 7:27 mark of the first half until Boo Buie converted a layup with 2:14 left. That’s over five minutes of scoreless basketball — or an eighth of the entire game with no points.

In terms of offensive designs themselves, plays often felt disjointed and ineffective. It appeared as if on countless possessions, Buie or Audige would tote the rock, attempt to run a play, and reset at the key with ~12 seconds to make something happen. By that point, the Wisconsin crowd would clap knowing its defense had been successful, and the ‘Cats would have to frantically and somewhat miraculously find a bucket through any means.

Northwestern was, quite frankly, lucky that the Badgers also struggled pretty mightily on O, scoring only six points in that stretch. On the night, Greg Gard’s team shot only 38% from the floor and attempted 23 threes, 14 of which were no good.

If anything, winning a game by scoring 54 points is a credit to Collins’ defense, which had a combined 10 blocks and steals and generated 14 turnovers. In his post-game interview, Collins praised NU’s defensive effort after having “slippage” against Michigan just three nights prior.

“I thought we made a lot of mental mistakes and didn’t defend very well against Michigan,” Collins said. “On nights like tonight, our defense has been able to win games for us. I thought we matched their physicality.”

Though Buie and Audige combined for 24 points, Northwestern did get 18 points from its bench, including eight apiece from Robbie Beran and Brooks Barnhizer. Nick Martinelli and Matt Nicholson had sound performances in making plays, too.

“It’s really important,” said Barnhizer after the game about bench scoring. “If Robbie can get close to 10. Me, Nick, Tydus and Ty, if we can get a few buckets, get a few points, it takes a lot of pressure off them [Buie and Audige] because you can’t really help on them. As long as we’re aggressive and we make some shots, it’ll be much easier for them, too.”

However, Ty Berry went scoreless — his fourth straight contest with under 10 points — and Beran has reached double figures just once in the last six games.

At this point in the year, NU does not have a consistent, reliable third option, especially when Buie and Audige aren’t at their best. That remains highly worrisome in spite of victory.

In the last two weeks, Northwestern has gone 4-2, which is impressive given little time to prepare and copious amounts of travel. However, the slate only gets tougher from here on out.

The ‘Cats head to Columbus for a rematch with Ohio State, the same Buckeyes who trounced them 73-57 on New Year’s Day. Then, Collins & Co. welcome in No. 1 Purdue, No. 18 Indiana and Iowa to Welsh-Ryan Arena before heading to Champaign to take on the Illini.

With 16 wins under its belt already, Northwestern has ensured that 2022-23 will be its best season in at least six years. If the ‘Cats want to return to the vaunted stage they reached in 2017, though, they need to let Sunday night serve as a wake-up call, knowing that far better teams lie on the docket — and that performances of this ilk will almost certainly not be good enough to win.