Good teams make other teams play badly. That’s why they are good teams. They play defense or execute offense in such a way that their opponent is not able to play the game they are accustom to playing. Michigan State is a good team and did a number of things to take Northwestern out of their standard game such as always having a bigger player guard 5-10 Michael “Juice” Thompson and attacking the basket in transition flawlessly. Combined with a less than strong effort from NU on defense and a number of missed easy shots and free throws, Michigan State handled Northwestern with what can only be called from NU’s point of view embarrassing ease.
For example, Michigan State executed their offense well, but NU was pretty unaggressive on defense in the second half in both the 1-3-1 and 2-3 matchup zone. That might have been due to foul trouble, but NU didn't really start the half that aggressive either. NU always seemed to be reacting to something Michigan State did (which to be honest is what resulted in fouls) instead of aggressively trying to play defense and deny the passing lanes. I still think Northwestern is a solid team (a postseason team), but we’ve now seen NU play poorly on defense in both its Big Ten games. Today was particularly bad as MSU shot better than 60% from the field. NU’s next game is at home on Thursday versus Texas-Pan America. UTPA is awful, but if Northwestern plays defense like did the last two contests it’ll be a close game. If I were Bill Carmody I would use practice to put extra emphasis on working on defense. Maybe working more on the press NU has briefly shown.
Northwestern knows how to play offense. Even tonight NU got a lot of good shots. What was disappointing on offense for NU was how many layups NU missed. After John Shurna missed two early layups (though he at least made the rest of his easy shot attempts) I started counting missed layups for NU. The final total for missed layups by NU excluding layups missed when fouled (though I think NU could have finished a number of those) was 10 missed easy layups. That’s 20 points. Add 7 missed free throws and the total is 27 points NU without a doubt should have scored. That’s the difference between a close game and getting manhandled on your home court. If you want to place specific blame on players for not converting at the hoop, Jeremy Nash and Luka Mirkovic each missed three layups, but they had plenty of company in the category of guys who failed to finish.
The only Wildcats who really played well tonight were John Shurna who scored 29 points and does legitimately look like a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate (though his teammates will need to pick it up for him to get real consideration) and Alex Marcotullio who hit enough threes and free throws to score 16 points. Marcotullio also had one of NU’s few good defensive plays when he jumped in front of pass at the top of the 1-3-1 for a steal.
As I said above, I still think Northwestern is a good team, but they’ll really have something to prove their next two games. A home game versus UTPA should be an easy win, but with NU’s recent poor execution they have plenty to work on that night. Then NU starts Big Ten road play at Michigan. If NU seriously wants to be an NCAA Tournament team they need to pick up at least three conference road wins and that game presents an opportunity which can’t be missed after the OT loss at Illinois.