Northwestern fell to Wisconsin 65-50 Saturday in a game that probably wasn't as close as the final score suggests. Here are four takeaways.
1) Well did you really expect anything different?
Yeah, this Wisconsin team can score points and stop other teams from scoring points. Northwestern caught lightning in a bottle against the Badgers last year, thanks mostly to Michael Jordan temporarily switching bodies with Drew Crawford, but that wasn't going to happen again, and Wisconsin made damn sure of that. It wasn't for a lack of trying on Northwestern's end either. Collins brought the Cats out in a 2-3 zone, something we haven't seen much of, if at all this year. With a severely undersized starting lineup of McIntosh, Demps, Cobb, Lindsey, and Olah, Collins was probably hoping that the zone could negate the size advantage of Dekker and Hayes, but when Dekker did a chin-up on the rim off an alley-oop on Wisconsin's third possession, you knew Wisconsin was ready for it. Wisconsin is just on a whole other level. They have great players who work well in their system. Bad teams don't beat those kinds of teams, and make no mistake, Northwestern is a bad team right now.
2) Northwestern does not have any forwards and that is a problem
Wisconsin has Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker, two very big, very talented forwards who can beat you in plenty of ways. Sure they're going to beat just about every team they play, but against Northwestern they are especially dangerous, because NU has no one who really plays that position. NU's starting "4" was Scottie Lindsey, a 6-5 shooting guard. Sanjay Lumpkin is 6-6. Law is 6-7, but is still a ways away from being Big Ten size. Gavin Skelly might be the one player who can at least physically matchup with the average Big Ten forward, but it's pretty clear that he's way too raw to get any serious minutes. Today it showed up in rebounding and fouls. Wisconsin had NU doubled up in the rebounding column at halftime, and ended up winning the rebounding battle 38-25. Fouls were a huge story of the first half, with NU picking up 11 to Wisconsin's 2, thanks largely to NU picking up 5 on one possession. The officiating seemed pretty fair. NU had to grab, hand-check, and hold Wisconsin's big men just to keep them from getting away. 4 guard lineups can work, but those 4 guards all need to be superb shooters and superb athletes. Northwestern's guards are not good enough for that, and with no help outside of Alex Olah, they're getting worked over.
3) There is good news for Alex Olah coming in 2015-16
Two of the three guys he's gotten worked over by this year won't be around next year. Hammons is looking more and more like someone who should declare for the draft early and Frank Kaminsky is graduating. Isaac Haas will be back and will be an absolute monster, but the best centers of the conference will be leaving. Are there going to be guys who we haven't heard of yet who will be big time players? Probably. It's the Big Ten. But the way it looks right now, the Big Ten is full of really good forwards, but short on true centers. Next year, the cream of the center crop will be Haas and Mo Walker, not a potential lottery pick in Hammonds and an All-American in Kaminsky. Thus concludes the super optimistic section of the rapid reactions.
4) There is just so, so far to go with this team
Bryant McIntosh looks like the only player on Northwestern who looks like someone who could start on a mid to upper tier Big Ten team right now, with the possible exception of Olah when he's playing well. The good thing about being such a young team is that you can more or less pass this season off as "the guys have to develop before they're ready for the big time." And that's probably right. But, for me at least, it's hard to look at this team and get really excited. Lindsey might be a little further along right now than people expected at the start of the year, but Vassar and Skelly are stuck on the end of the bench and Law continues to struggle mightily offensively. I think the idea of "having an identity," is of over-exaggerated importance, but what is this team's identity? It's not the grind-it-out-gritty defensive style last year's team had. It's not an up-tempo run and gun team that Collins said he wanted to lead when he first came to Northwestern. They're just there. There's something supremely demoralizing about watching Bronson Koenig, who is averaging 6.5 points per contest, jam 4 three pointers with plenty of open looks coming from within the same hula-hoop of space at the top of the key, a huge no-no for a team playing a 2-3. There are positives for Northwestern if you want to try and find them, but as the season goes on, more and more of them are off the basketball court, rather than on it.