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Northwestern basketball’s small-ball lineup has its flaws, but it is not time to panic

Adjustments need to be made.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Where do we even start with last night’s debacle in Champaign?

“That was a butt kicking,” Chris Collins said postgame. “In every sense of the word.”

Let me start by saying the world is not falling, and the season is not over. Yes, last night’s loss was embarrassing, but there are still 18 Big Ten games left. Yes, it is Northwestern’s worst Big Ten regular season loss since it lost 79-50 to Michigan State in 2020, and it ties the most points allowed in a Big Ten regular season game since Collins came to Evanston over a decade ago. However, when the calendar strikes March, this will be in the loss column, whether it was a one- or 30-point loss.

However, Northwestern’s fatal flaw for the 2023-24 season came shining through. With Northwestern’s typical four-guard lineup, the Wildcats were outmatched defensively. The Illini were bigger, stronger and more athletic than the ‘Cats, bullying their way into the paint for easy buckets. Because of the lineup, Northwestern had a 6-foot-2 Boo Buie guarding a 6-foot-6 Marcus Domask, and Domask did whatever he wanted, backing down Buie deep before flipping up a baby hook. In total, Domask shot 11-of-15 from the field, ending the game with 32 points.

To add to the problem, the ‘Cats’ post-trap defense left shooters open all over the floor, and the Illini capitalized. Illinois shot 55.6% from deep, with many being clean looks without a hand in the vicinity. Is it likely that a team can repeat a performance of shooting over 60% from the field and over 50% from deep? No. Sometimes it is just one of those nights, but the lack of competitive shots was deeply concerning. As Collins noted postgame, Illinois played a similar style of basketball as the team that knocked off the Wildcats twice last year — Penn State.

“They played, I guess we call it booty ball around here, and it’s very effective,” Collins said.

Each team is different, but the Wildcats allowed 66.4 points per game in the Big Ten last year. So far in 2024, the ‘Cats are allowing 92 points per conference game. Is it a tiny sample? Absolutely. Yet, with its slow-tempo offense, Northwestern’s inability to get stops consistently will cost it the chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Collins can say all he wants that this team has the same defensive potential, but it is quite clear that’s not the case.

Playing four guards only works if you have a big man who can defend the paint. While Northwestern has three bigs in the rotation, none of them have shown any signs that they can be a solid rim protector. Matt Nicholson has regressed mightily from last season, averaging 3.5 rebounds a game. To put that in context, Buie, standing at 6-foot-2, averages 3.7 boards a game.

To add to No. 34’s woes, he constantly has to sit due to foul trouble. Nicholson has picked up three or more fouls in over one-third of the games this season. Against athletic bigs, such as Coleman Hawkins, Nicholson is a liability on the perimeter. If NU wants to get anywhere this season, he has to figure it out quickly.

To make matters worse, when Collins goes to the bench, it rarely gets better. Blake Preston has more fouls than points this season and is a whopping 10-of-24 from the restricted area this season. Last night, he only played seven minutes, and it appears that his minutes are getting lower and lower. With Luke Hunger starting to find his footing, it is only a matter of time before the sophomore is the first big off the bench, and if Nicholson’s struggles continue, No. 33 could be in the starting lineup before we know it.

As Collins said last night, a loss this bad can’t just get flushed. Yes, the ‘Cats will learn from this, but there also have to be some adjustments. For the first time in a long time, this team is flooded with perimeter scorers. With Ryan Langborg (although he did have an off night), and Ty Berry being legitimate threats from deep, plus Brooks Barnhizer stretching the floor, the ‘Cats can win shootouts. However, their tempo turns into fewer possessions, which can be crucial in Big Ten games.

The defense is not where it once was, and that is okay. However, playing the same style of basketball as before will not work. This team’s strength is not playing in rock fights; instead, it is better prepared to play in shootouts. If the ‘Cats are going to play small ball, they need to act like a team with four guards on the floor and push the ball.