This wasn’t an awful game, but the fact is that playing the way they’d played tonight Northwestern is NOT an NCAA Tournament team. They’re a good team, they’re a 20-win team, but they aren’t an NCAA Tournament team. To be an NCAA Tournament team you need to beat other NCAA Tournament competition from leagues that aren’t one bid leagues. Thus far Northwestern hasn’t done so. Right now I think Northwestern will be back in the NIT to once again. To get beyond that point a couple things need to happen. The most obvious is Northwestern cannot be so dependent on Drew Crawford and John Shurna. If Crawford hadn’t had the game of his life tonight scoring 34 points (the most ever by a Creighton opponent) this would have been the Baylor game all over again. Shurna scored 18 points, but the fact is Creighton did an outstanding job defending him in NU’s offense. A good number of Shurna’s points came from scoring on out of bounds plays.
I think the key player for NU is JerShon Cobb. The natural talent is there for him to score points because while he’s not a great shooter he has the ability to get to the hoop and he’s a good enough free throw shooter to make shots if he gets fouled. The problem is that he doesn’t seem fully healthy from his injured hip and concussion and he still needs to find a way to get somewhat more consistent with his outside shooting in order to create a few more driving lanes. Reggie Hearn has been something of an option as an outside shooter, but I’m afraid his struggles tonight against Creighton might be a portent of the struggles he’ll have against the top-6 teams in the Big Ten.
The major overall issue for Northwestern is defense. The 1-3-1 was okay tonight, but he eventually Creighton started hitting shots against it. The man-to-man was flat out bad as the Blue Jays guards were able to enter the ball into the post and get Doug McDermott any shot he wanted from about a foot away from the basket. I’m very worried about how successful Northwestern will be against teams like Ohio State with Jared Sullinger or Illinois with Myers Leonard if they can’t deny those guys the ball in the post. Perhaps the saving grace is that Creighton is a better shooting team than Illinois or Ohio State, but I can’t be one hundred certain of that because teams have a history of going crazy versus NU from three.
Rebounding is also obviously and issue as NU got outrebounded by 10 tonight. Now, I don’t expect NU to outrebound everybody or really anybody, but I think NU needs to prevent teams for getting second chance shots. I lost count of the number of times that Creighton got a second or third look and cashed in often times for three.
It’s a little frustrating to be at this point right now because I know I started to buy into a lot of the tournament hype. The problem I think is that Northwestern isn’t getting any better. I actually think they played better defense at the start of the year in the Charleston Classic than they have in the last three games. Maybe that is simply because those teams were worse than the teams NU has played the last three games, but I have trouble believing Tulsa is worse than Eastern Illinois. Bottom line, work has to be done for NU to make the Big Dance. The good news is that the Big Ten is strong enough plenty of chances for quality wins exist, the bad news is the Big Ten is strong enough that if things don’t get better Northwestern will once again finish with 7 or 8 league wins and be right back where they ended last year. The NIT is better than nothing, but it’s tremendously frustrating to have the NCAA Tournament within sight, but constantly trip and fall before reaching the finish line.