For the second consecutive game, Northwestern came down to the wire against a tough Big Ten team and for the second consecutive game, on Wednesday versus in-state rival Illinois, the Wildcats weren't able to seal the deal and left without a win.
Late-game execution has been a big problem for NU this season, but there's a reason games like yesterday's are close battles instead of comfortable wins: turnovers.
In this most recent one, Northwestern committed 11 turnovers, which is maybe a little high when looked at in isolation. However, when the fact that Illinois committed just three of their own (that's an actual and accurate number) is taken into account, 11 is astronomical.
Even Illinois coach John Groce, in his post-game press conference, was stunned at how few miscues NU forced his team into making.
"We played with a lot of purpose and certainly an indicator of that is the three turnovers," Groce said. "I haven't seen that in any college basketball game I've been a part of... Our guys did a great job of taking care of the ball and I thought we played a lot more intelligently."
As Henry Bushnell noted in the rapid reaction for this game, NU is one of the worst teams in the country in terms of forcing steals, and got zero today as all three Illini turnovers were of the dead-ball variety. That explains how Groce's team scored 14 points off Wildcat turnovers while Chris Collins' team wasn't able to get any. Also, this was why Illinois was able to attempt 10 more shots than Northwestern, and still win the game despite a lower effective field goal percentage.
"I didn't like our activity defensively," Collins said. "I thought we were in the right spots, but we have to be a lot more active. We need to be getting some more deflections... The three turnovers, it just shows that our aggressiveness on the defensive end wasn't there."
On the other hand, many of NU's turnovers came off bad passes and ill-advised dribbling. Instead of just leading to a side-out like offensive fouls do, live ball turnovers are what Collins refers to as the "pick-six" of basketball in that they directly result in points for the opposition.
NU doesn't have the luxury of being able to withstand the four-point swings each one of these turnovers can lend themselves too. The Wildcats don't have the athleticism and ability to withstand those kind of barrages.
This poor play takes its toll on players as well as the coaching staff. Bryant McIntosh and Alex Olah were the only two Wildcats to speak to the media after the game and both were visibly upset by how the game went. It's nice to see players get frustrated after losses but at some point, that anger needs to turn into success.
"Our hands weren't active at all," McIntosh said. "[Illinois] threw the ball in the air anywhere they wanted... Losing is not acceptable. That's all there is to it."
Collins, who wears his emotions on his sleeve as much as any other college basketball coach, really wanted this win for his team. He wants his team to stop coming close to wins but actually getting them.
"We're 1-3 and could easily say we should be 3-1," Collins said. "That's reality and it's not about coming close, I've said that, it's about finding ways to win and that's the next step for us."