On Northwestern: Difference Between a Tournament Team and Advancing…

Posted by Chris Hatfield on November 16th, 2017

Chris Collins spoke openly and often about leaving last season in the past. He, along with his team, wanted to move on. They talked about higher aspirations. If you believe those around the country, the ones that by and large picked Northwestern to finish as high as third in a deep Big Ten, those aspirations should include a second-weekend appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Yet in Northwestern’s first realistic test of the 2017-18 season, it looked a lot more like a team happy with its first career NCAA Tournament appearance last March than anything else. And if its 92-88 home defeat to Creighton on Wednesday night is any indication, there’s much work to be done. There’s a noted difference between teams that make the NCAA Tournament and the ones that progress in it. You can find that stark contrast in many spots from last night’s game. What does Northwestern want to be?

Northwestern Showed Some Elements of a Hangover Last Night (credit: Chicago Tribune)

You could start by looking at bench points because it told the story of the evening — 33 for Creighton and four for Northwestern. Collins lamented about his shortened bench, and he has a point. The departure of forward Sanjay Lumpkin from last season has been a big blow. It has so far loomed larger than once thought, given that his partial replacement in sophomore Aaron Falzon has been slowed by injury. Still, you know what happens to teams that advance in the NCAA Tournament? They have injuries. Players foul out. Others step up and fill voids. The answer usually isn’t four of five starters playing over 25 minutes. It typically can’t be and it wasn’t for Northwestern on Wednesday.

You could also look at points in the paint as another key indicator — Creighton with 48 of them and Northwestern with 26. More specifically, consider how the Bluejays got those points in the paint. Collins mentioned his team’s defense a total of 12 times in the postgame press conference — a lot of that was found (or not found) in the paint. In a first half in which Creighton led by as much as 15 points, there were three times where Greg McDermott’s team got wide-open rim runs with no Northwestern player in sight. Martin Krampelj knew that. He feasted and finished with 17 points, two of which included a late-bucket putting the game out of reach. Guard Bryant McIntosh, who finished with 24 points, knows that too. “This was a program game, an opportunity to show everybody what we’re about and we did the opposite. We’re a blue-collar, defense-first program and tonight it was great we put up 88 or whatever but they put up 92. Disappointing.”

Maybe most importantly you could look at the moments that decide games — to be more precise, rebounding plays where effort and fundamentals usually mean the most. With 58 seconds remaining, Scottie Lindsey drained a three-pointer that brought the Wildcats back within three. On the next play, Vic Law, who finished with a game-high 30 points, blocked a shot and attempted to save the ball but couldn’t. With a 10-second shot-clock remaining, Northwestern then forced a tough three-pointer that barely grazed the rim. What do second weekend NCAA Tournament teams do in that situation? They rebound the ball, call a timeout and get in position to go into overtime. What did Northwestern do? Get boxed out, get beat for the rebound and give up an uncontested layup to put the game away. That’s the difference between a team that makes the NCAA Tournament and one that does damage once they arrive. It’s rather simple.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. Northwestern was punched in the mouth early and fought back admirably to regain the lead after its early sputters. I’m not sure what exactly that means but it has to mean something. It’s a sign of hope and positivity, I suppose. Law dropping 23 points in the second-half comeback as well. Yet still, there’s work to do for Northwestern. Aspirations are different. Goals have risen. Signs of life and Disney-like stories of a team making its first appearance in the Big Dance are a thing of the past. They have to be better. Wednesday evening’s performance against a team that regularly gets there made that clearer than ever.

Chris Hatfield (9 Posts)

Indeed, ball is life, but can we find a new expression?

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *