Northwestern struggled in several areas in Saturday’s loss to Indiana, but once again the obvious problem was NU’s defense which allowed 88 points. Yes, IU had an extra session to score, but throughout the game Northwestern displayed a total lack of understanding about who and where they needed to defend. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the vast majority of the time Northwestern is a lazy defensive team. Every once and awhile they get fired up to play defense, usually while in the 1-3-1, but overall the Wildcats are not actively seeking to deny passing lanes and fight through screens. I can’t stand how much Northwestern switches when attempting to play man-to-man. I know that some of the concepts of the way NU plays are based on switching, but the fact you get to pass off your guy to someone else whenever the slightest rub screen comes by is ridiculous. All that does is make players not have to play hard, because they don’t have to fight through any screens, and create mismatches like Michael Thompson on a center in the post or Luka Mirkovic on a guard outside. Northwestern’s players are not so physically weak or slow that they can’t fight through a screen every once and while. Maybe such a defense would be necessary if NU played Kansas (though I wouldn’t even advocate it them), but against an Indiana team that hadn’t hit double digit wins until today it sure isn’t. Today’s 1-3-1 did help NU record 10 steals, but against the 1-3-1 Indiana was able to hit 10 threes. Of course, eight were by guard Jordan Hulls who was the only Hoosier starter with a relatively decent three point percentage. For some reason, though, Northwestern refused to find him and guard. If Northwestern would have simply started defending Hulls on the perimeter they likely would have won the game with ease.
Last week I commented that Bill Carmody should fire either Mitch Henderson or Ivan Vujic and bring in a man-to-man defense expert. It was intelligently pointed out to me by several readers that for a number of reasons (loyalty, pride, etc.) Carmody probably wouldn’t be willing to do so. I agree, but I would then ask for the sake of all NU fans that Northwestern A.D. Jim Phillips to make Carmody do so. Phillips has publically said he is going to negotiate a contract extension with Carmody following this season. If I were Jim Phillips, I would tell Carmody that part of the deal was he needed to bring in someone who could teach his team to play man-to-man defense without switching whenever two offensive players run by each other. Carmody’s visceral reaction would probably be to object to Phillips sticking his nose into Carmody’s staff, but I would hope that an intelligent man like Carmody would see the logical outcome would actually be his team getting better and his job getting more secure. Despite some people’s objections, nothing is wrong with NU’s offense. If the Wildcats could play even passable defense, I believe they would have 24 wins right not and be headed for a Big Ten Tournament bye and a top-8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they probably will need to turn the tables of Indiana in Indianapolis on Thursday just to make the NIT.
Part of the problem with defense is probably Drew Crawford can’t play it right now. In fact, he can’t do much of anything right now. That’s way he played only 18 minutes, and in truth those were probably 18 more minutes than he should have played. Right now Crawfor simply can’t move on defense and he is getting way to self-centered on offense when he doesn’t score. I think it probably has to do with being frustrated with how the injury limits him, but a couple times today Crawford fired up what I’ll call, “Me First” three-pointers, basically he took bad shots because he wanted points in the scorebook. I know the kid is hurt and I understand that might impact his play, but if he’s as hurt as his play indicates he shouldn’t be on the floor. He probably should have rested earlier in the year. Now, if he gets benched it’s basically too late to do any good, which is way I think he’s trying to play through his pain.
Of course, Crawford wasn’t the only Wildcat to fire up a dumb three. NU got back into a game they were trailing by getting the ball inside to score or setup a good three. In the end, though, the ‘Cats took 42 threes, and many were not good shots. Thompson himself tried 16 (he did make 7) and John Shurna tried 9 (he made just 3). Shurna did record a double-double (31 points, 12 rebounds), however, because he made 9-of-12 shots inside as well. If he’d attacked a little more instead of shooting some of those threes it might have been a different game. It also would have helped if Shurna and Luka Mirkovic hadn’t missed 5 total free throws at key times. Both should be better free throw shooters than they have been of late. Clearly some sort of mental block exists for them.
Actually, a huge mental block exists for all of NU’s team. They can’t play away from home. This loss, bad as it was, was actually one of NU’s best road performances. That’s scary as NU won’t be hosting a home game if they make the NIT (also, a bid to the NIT is certainly not a guarantee at this point). NU also runs the risk of playing Indiana in Indianapolis in the Big Ten Tournament. That could seem a road environment as well, but at least the Hoosiers won’t be that much more familiar than NU with the playing conditions at Conseco Fieldhouse.
So Northwestern ends the regular season with a record of 19-12. From the point of view of history that’s pretty good. In fact, it’s a school record for wins. From point of view of November 12th (a.k.a right after Kevin Coble got hurt), it’s also pretty good. In fact, it might be considered remarkable, most teams don’t set school records without their best player. From my point of view today, though, I’m somewhat disappointed. Watching and evaluating team as honestly as possible after every game, I feel the Wildcats didn’t achieve to their potential. Wins over Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, and Notre Dame showed what this team was capable of doing. Unfortunately, a collection of games like the December 30th contest at Illinois, the game at Iowa, and today’s loss at Indiana are sprinkled amongst the great games mentioned above. On some days this team played with the best of the Big Ten and the nation, but on others they played worse than the worst. That inconsistency isn’t the fault of Coble’s injury or history. Responsibility (both good and bad) for what happened from November 13th to March 6th rests with those who played and coached the games which occurred between those dates.
As the Wildcats prepare for the Big Ten Tournament, I hope the players and coaches take confidence from the games they played well, but I hope even more so that they learn lessons from the games they didn’t, because if NU can’t improve in several areas (such as defense) a season which once stood on the verge of being the fulfillment of many people’s dreams will quickly, and unceremoniously, come to an end. If they do learn from their mistakes, Northwestern could be playing basketball well into the month of March.