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With a golden chance to build positive momentum, Northwestern’s inconsistency plummets to a new low

And it’s not gonna get a lot better.

Mary Grace Grabill/Northwestern Athletics

After Northwestern’s first Big Ten road win, a 74-69 victory at Wisconsin on Wednesday, a trip home seemed like the perfect reward for a balanced effort. It won the turnover battle in Madison, outrebounded the Badgers and shot 47% from three-point land to bounce back from a 30-point loss to Ohio State the Friday prior.

Perhaps in return for that, the Wildcats got a chance to take on 6-8 Illinois, one of the two winless teams in the Big Ten heading into its Sunday clash in Evanston. Exactly a week earlier, it had lost to that same Wisconsin team in Champaign. Clearly, Northwestern had one of its most winnable games right in front of it. At the very least, the Illini presented a prime opportunity for the ‘Cats to string together consecutive, quality performances in Big Ten play, something it hadn’t done.

Northwestern lost this game by 41 points at home. That is a worse blowout than 4-11 Central Connecticut’s 39-point loss at the State Farm Center in November.

Although turnovers have typically been the root of NU’s problems this year, the ‘Cats actually did a nice job in that department on Sunday. They only committed 13 giveaways. Yet, just as Northwestern fixed that issue, a myriad of other things went wrong. The Wildcats shot a season-worst 27% from the field, surrendered 29 fastbreak points with bad transition defense and were outrebounded 41-31 by a team Wisconsin and Nebraska punished on the glass last week. That final mark doesn’t fully capture NU’s lack of physicality, which Maggie Pina cited as a driving force behind Illinois breaking the game wide open.

Speaking of that, a soul-crushing run once again put the ‘Cats away early. After a Paige Mott layup brought the score to 13-9 in Illinois’ favor with 2:41 remaining in the first quarter, the Illini outscored NU by a whopping 27-6 margin in the next 10 minutes. Northwestern has been prone to those runs in many of its losses, but to suffer that against a winless team in the Big Ten is especially discouraging.

When a team’s average margin of defeat is 29.6 points, the takeaways from its losses begin to sound like an echo chamber. There isn’t a lot new here that I didn’t write about Northwestern’s 40-point loss in Happy Valley two weeks ago. It’s boring and it’s grim, but it’s a simple truth: Bad teams find ways to take two steps back for every step forward they take, even when positive momentum appears to be on the horizon.

It’s worth noting that Joe McKeown missed his fourth straight game with an illness; acting head coach Tangela Smith noted he’s still recovering. That clearly doesn’t help, and this is a Northwestern team that often looks like it’s missing a strong leader, whether on the court or on the sidelines. But, following up the most impressive victory of the season with a defeat as demoralizing as Sunday’s minimizes any chance NU has at overcoming the absence of its head coach.

To make matters worse, consistency might finally be on the way... in the form of a brutal schedule. Up next, Northwestern will head up to East Lansing on Wednesday to take on a 12-4 Michigan State team that was a Caitlin Clark buzzer-beater away from taking No. 3 Iowa to overtime on the road. It also won by 38 points over DePaul, a team that beat NU by 25. After that, the ‘Cats face the Nittany Lions again, and cap off their January by playing No. 14 Indiana and the Hawkeyes back-to-back.

Many high-major teams would probably go winless through this gauntlet. With a 7-10 record and the seventh-worst defensive rating in all of Division I before Sunday, the Wildcats don’t appear to be an exception. Even stringing together competitive games should be tough. To foster positivity going into 2024-25 and onward, though, Northwestern’s response to this blowout has to start with bringing consistent strengths to the table. Whether it’s ball movement, perimeter defense, solid transition scoring, ball security or anything else, NU has to find some aspect of its identity that’s a positive from game to game.