It’s probably a good thing this article comes out a day after the game. If released 24 hours ago, it would have inhabited a very different tone, as Northwestern’s 75-66 overtime loss at Minnesota was one of the most frustrating defeats the season. Now that cooler heads have prevailed, it’s time to dive into the tape and figure out what went wrong. With one of the oddest box scores of the year, I think it’s best to divide a game that is ripe for overreactions into two categories: what is real and what is not. Let’s start with the latter:
What is not real?
Northwestern’s turnover issues
Saturday was flat out rough for the ‘Cats in the turnover department. On the second leg of a back-to-back road slate, the Wildcat offense was incredibly sloppy out of the gate. Offensive fouls, errant passes and loose ball-handling all contributed to 12 first-half turnovers, a number that would rise to 17 by the end of the game. It’s the second highest turnover output of the season, behind only the Penn State game. The turnovers were a major reason NU was held to 66 points in 45 minutes, scoring under a point per possession.
That said, I’m ready to chalk this one up as a bad day at the office. While the way Minnesota hedged Boo Buie and prevented him from driving gave the Wildcats issues, Northwestern has been one of the most careful teams with the ball all season. Coming in with 8.8 turnovers a game, Northwestern basically doubled that on Saturday. Northwestern’s best wins of the season have come on days where the ‘Cats limit turnovers to single digits, so you know it will be a point of emphasis for Chris Collins this week.
Ty Berry’s shooting struggles
Berry, who’s been one of the best three-point shooters in the Big Ten this season, was not his best against Minnesota, scoring eight points on 3-of-11 shooting and turning the ball over thrice. Frankly, once every five or so games, Berry has one of these shooting performances (see: Nebraska, Maryland). Don’t worry about Ty Berry. His improved percentage from deep is one of the primary reasons Northwestern has been able to fill Chase Audige’s spot. It’s far from a perfect statistic, but it’s telling that even in a down game, Berry had the highest +/- of any player in Northwestern’s starting lineup. Berry should keep shooting, and with the next two games at home, I’d be surprised if the senior didn’t return to form.
What is real?
Free throw woes
I think there is a legitimate cause for worry at the free throw line. A year after finishing second in the Big Ten in free throw percentage, Northwestern has dropped to seventh in the category. Several crucial misses from Buie, Langborg and Barnhizer altered the game’s result as Northwestern finished 13-of-20 from the charity stripe. Buie’s percentage at the line has dropped 3.2% from a year ago, but it’s Barnhizer’s 9.7% decrease and Langborg’s 16.7% drop from his final campaign with Princeton that are the primary causes for concern.
Equally as alarming are the other team’s numbers. Northwestern’s opponents have now attempted more free throws than the ‘Cats in all but one conference matchup (Maryland). In 10 of 11 Big Ten games, Northwestern is handing its opponents more free points than it is getting. Going forward, the ‘Cats have to be more aggressive driving to the basket and drawing fouls, and on the defensive end, Northwestern needs to avoid picking up unnecessary fouls that put the other team in the bonus early in the half.
The Big Ten’s best big men have really given the ‘Cats trouble on the defensive side of the floor. In the last four games alone, Northwestern has seen 6-foot-11 Dawson Garcia drop 20 points, 7-foot-4 Zach Edey dominate with 30 points and 6-foot-10 Coleman Hawkins produce 22 points. Meanwhile, Northwestern’s three big men combine for just 10.3 points per game, and have not been as effective on the glass as you’d hope. This is a very real issue going forward, even if Northwestern has the luxury of not having to see Edey or Hawkins again this regular season. The offensive numbers for Nicholson, Hunger and Preston tend to vary game-by-game, but Northwestern has to find new ways to help the big men on the defensive end.
Four overtime games is really something. Northwestern is 2-2 in those games, so it’s hard to make any universal statements, but I do think two things are worth noting. These 20 additional minutes of play contribute to a starting lineup that is already working more relative to the rest of the conference. After yesterday’s game, Northwestern has three of the top four players in the conference in total minutes in Buie (1st), Barnhizer (2nd) and Langborg (4th). Did Northwestern just run out of gas by the end of the game against Minnesota? It’s certainly possible.
To spin this positively, Northwestern now has more close-game and crunch time experience than anyone else in the conference, and likely, any team it could face in the postseason. Experience in those moments absolutely matters — you saw it on display in the final few seconds of regulation, where Buie got to the line and sent the game to extra time. Down the stretch, Northwestern won’t be a deer in headlights in the big moments.
The Wildcats are now 2-5 in true road games, and 4-6 in total when playing outside of Welsh-Ryan Arena. The ‘Cats score 68.6 points away from Evanston compared to 80.3 when at home. The defense hasn’t traveled as well either. In Big Ten road games, Northwestern has surrendered 82.3 points per game, compared to 76.0 at home.
In order to make the tournament, the ‘Cats absolutely need to prove they can win away games. Luckily, they should have plenty of opportunities, including against a struggling Rutgers team, a flailing Indiana squad and opponents in Maryland and Michigan State who the ‘Cats have already beaten this season. At minimum, the ‘Cats need to win two of these contests, or dreams of playing in March could be dashed. The Minnesota loss was an imminently winnable game that the ‘Cats led for almost 34 minutes of game action. Now, the margin for error is reduced, especially on the road. The Wildcats won’t have the comfort of playing the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago this year, and it goes without saying, any March Madness games would be outside the comfort of Welsh-Ryan Arena. The ‘Cats have now played in five close games on the road, but with only one win to show for their efforts, solving these woes moves to number one on NU’s checklist.