After seeing Northwestern take on the best the Big Ten has to offer, it seems clear that the Wildcats aren’t quite ready for a Final Four run—they do, however, have the ability to knock off a team that is.
Northwestern kicked off Big Ten play with a 7-2 start, boosting their overall record to 18-4 and putting them on track for their first tournament berth in school history. Thanks to a combination of factors—the program was trash for seven decades, the field is wide open for any team with a couple upsets and over 20 wins, Medill controls the media—their unprecedented start was well-detailed.
Still, questions regarding the Wildcats’ postseason potential remained unanswered, largely because none of their first 18 wins came against a team currently in the top 25. The closest they came was when they downed then-No. 22 Texas in their fourth game of the season; the Longhorns are currently 10-16. Four games later, we have some answers.
Barring a Big Ten tournament title run, Northwestern will not enter the tournament as a top-5 seed; in all likelihood, it will be a No. 6 or No. 7 seed, meaning it will likely get a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the next round—teams with high-octane offenses like UNC, Duke, Oregon, Louisville, and UCLA. Their recent stretch against No. 16 Purdue, then-No. 7 Wisconsin, and No. 23 Maryland was the closest to anything resembling an NCAA stretch this tournament-bound team has had all season.
They went 1-3 through four games, with one impressive win and one baffling loss, and all without leading scorer Scottie Lindsey, who missed all four games with mononucleosis. (It’s hard to judge a team with one of its best players on the bench, but March, like mono, waits for nobody.)
The first game of the stretch was a brutal 21-point loss at the hands of the Boilermakers and Caleb Swanigan. The sophomore forward cooked Northwestern to the tune of 24 points and 16 rebounds, even hitting two of his four three-pointers. Entering the game, Swanigan was known as one of the most dominant interior talents in college basketball and Dererk Pardon, Northwestern’s starting center, entered the matchup giving up a 30-pound advantage—Purdue was going to win the paint no matter what.
The Wildcat offense was smothered. Pardon scored six points and Vic Law, who averages 13.1 points per game, was held to one point in 35 minutes of play. Interior offense isn’t what drives a Wildcat offense that attempts nearly 22 treys per game, but Northwestern didn’t lose in the paint—well, it did, but where it really lost the game was the three-point line.
Purdue is a talented long-range shooting team, with three players that take at least 3.2 treys per game and connect better than 42 percent of the time; it didn’t help that Northwestern had to challenge Purdue’s strength without Lindsey, the team’s top shooter, to take the heat off star guard Bryant McIntosh. The Boilermakers hit 12-of-23 treys throughout the contest, well above Wildcats opponents’s standard rate of 32.9 percent. Dying in the paint and doing nothing more than flailing your arms two seconds after the shooting motion begins is how you lose 80-59.
The next game came against Illinois; it did not go well. Without Lindsey, the Wildcats faltered at home against a team they should have creamed. Lindsey’s absence wasn’t the issue in that one, though. It was the fact they got eight bench points and 11 combined points from three starters. Illinois, a team ranked in the bottom half of the nation in scoring, dropped 40 in the second half on the 36th-best scoring defense in the nation. There was no takeaway from this one other than Northwestern needed to get its shit together, which they did five days later.
The Wildcats broke through with a win against a ranked, legitimately good (arguably the conference’s best) tournament team. Northwestern topped then-No. 7 Wisconsin 66-59 in Madison, which is no easy task considering the Badgers have now lost just 28 home games there since 2002. (Some of the shininess of the win faded when Wisconsin lost at Michigan Thursday, but it should still serve the Wildcats well come seeding time.)
Ethan Happ’s awkwardly efficient post arsenal is a treasure, but the Wildcats kept him off his game by throwing constant double-teams his way, forcing the other ball out of his hands. The Wildcat frontcourt managed to shut down their counterparts, holding standout Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig to two points on eight shots and forcing 12 Badger turnovers to their six. On the whole, the Wildcats looked like a completely different defensive unit, holding Wisconsin to 50 points on 38 percent shooting from the field.
On the other end, Happ and Nigel Hayes didn’t clog the lane like Swanigan and Isaac Haas; coincidentally, Law and Pardon showed up to play this time, combining for 22 points and 14 rebounds in the 66-59 win. McIntosh added a game-high 25 points on 23 shots.
The Wildcat offense is at its best when Law and Pardon are able to create interior shots, as the two bigs are both talented passers. Against the Badgers, they excelled at drawing in the eyes of Wisconsin defenders on a post back-downs and whipping it out wide; conversely, McIntosh’s ability to force the collapse of a defense with his dribble opened up Law and senior forward Nathan Taphorn, both fully capable shooters, for wide-open treys of their own:
Northwestern is a good, sometimes very good team when it establishes something of a low post presence. Also defense, as a concept, is a good thing; when Northwestern chooses to employ it, it makes the Wildcats a tough team to beat. The flip side, as experienced against its first two and final opponents, is that Northwestern is not built to win a shootout against a team with a capable offense; rather, it will lose, sometimes embarrassingly, when said defense wears down or takes breaks.
That’s exactly what happened in their follow-up let-down performance against Maryland. From the jump, the Terrapins created the shots they wanted and claimed a 20-point lead in the first half. Melo Trimble is quite good, but Northwestern made him look like the Second Coming. After the Wildcats shut down Koenig a few nights before, they failed to so much as inconvenience Trimble, allowing the junior to score 32 points on 12-of-17 shooting. And of all nights, on the one in which they finally got some run out of their bench, with Isiah Brown scoring 19.
McIntosh was off from the start (nine points on 3-of-13 shooting), the Wildcats were more miss than hit on their threes (5-of-22), and, as it turns out, Law and Pardon are not quite enough to serve as the focal point of the offense. When a reserve is your leading scorer, it usually means you’re having a bad night. Considering the Wildcats managed to hang with a four-loss Terrapins squad in the second half, matching their 42 points, and end up losing only by 10, I’m not sure you can call it a shit night. But posting a 22-point first half and allowing 32 points to a player that routinely roasts you ain’t good.
With its toughest stretch behind it, Northwestern will now try to add what should be easy wins (don’t hate me when it loses to Rutgers) and fluff up their overall record. The Wildcats have the Scarlet Knights on Saturday, followed by Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Purdue once again. They have the means to win four of those games and enter the Big Ten tournament 23-8, which is pretty fantastic given they’re one of five teams to have missed every single NCAA tournament.
Behind head coach Chris Collins, Northwestern has built a stout defensive squad, complete with two guards capable of breaking down a defense and a forward in Law that can play outside-in. The offense has its flaws—no dominant big man, not everyone can create their own shots, a short bench—and those will no doubt do in the Wildcats come March. But if McIntosh and Lindsey can help them survive their first-round matchup, the team from Evanston will have a very real chance to ruin a blue blood’s season. And isn’t that what college basketball’s all about?