People will have a lot of theories regarding what sent a promising Northwestern team from a possible NCAA Tournament berth to a lower seed in the NIT. They’ll talk about Drew Crawford’s injury, Luka Mirkovic’s inconsistency, and Bill Carmody’s personnel use, but I don’t actually think any of those was the real problem. The real problem is much simpler—Northwestern can’t win on the road.
NU’s only true road wins are over an N.C. State team that is tied for last in the ACC and a Michigan team that should have beat NU handily, but blew a 17 point lead. Northwestern is 1-7 on the road in Big Ten play and 2-7 overall. The Wildcats are 2-0 on a neutral court, but that neutral court was only about 9 miles from Welsh-Ryan Arena.
What Northwestern’s problem is on the road is a matter of speculation. However, in most of the road contests NU has fallen into a large hole at some point and it’s tough to come back from double digits away from home. In many of those cases, NU has cut into that double digit hole and final score has been close, but only once, the aforementioned Michigan game, has NU actually fully overcome their hole. In other contests, such as Sunday at Penn State and at Iowa, NU has never been in the game. The only road contests where NU hasn’t gotten in a huge first half hole are N.C. State (a win), Illinois (which NU lost in overtime), and Michigan State (which NU got into a big hole in the early 2nd half). I strongly believe why NU beat N.C. State and took overtime to lose to Illinois is the fact the Wildcats weren’t chasing double digits early. When a team gets down 10+ points early in a hostile environment, it’s tough to come back. You either pack it in and seal your fate (NU on Sunday) or you make an huge effort to come back, but probably exhaust too much energy to have a shot in the stretch (see NU at Minnesota). This is especially true of teams like Northwestern who don’t get a lot from their bench.
Why does Northwestern often fall into a hole early? I wish I knew. For whatever reason, this team doesn’t seem to play with the constant urgency necessary to play defense in the Big Ten. It isn’t Northwestern’s offense. In blowout first halves against Wisconsin and Penn State, NU still played well on offense. It was the fact that both times the opposition scored more than 40 points which put NU into a bad situation. What’s frustrating is that Northwestern has shown they can play defense. Sometimes even in a contest they get blown out in the first half, they’ll comeback and play good defense in the second. That makes no sense what so ever. If you can do it in the second half, you can do it in the first half. Why NU can’t come out of the tunnel and play hard is a mystery, but they haven’t done so in 6 of the 8 Big Ten road games they’ve played this year. That’s bad. Maybe Bill Carmody needs to be more aggressive in his pregame speeches, maybe the team’s senior leaders need to get on the freshman more. Who knows? But Northwestern has one Big Ten road left. They play at Indiana on Saturday. The Wildcats are much better than the Hoosiers, but Indiana has a reputation for playing hard at home. If Northwestern doesn’t come out with intensity, it won’t matter that Indiana is resting near the bottom of the Big Ten. They too will find a way to continue Northwestern’s road woes.