Turning The Corner

A 15-point loss is never anything resembling a moral victory, nor is it a confidence booster in any respect.

However, after losing to Wisconsin 78-46 at home in January, Northwestern saved itself from embarrassment this time around in Madison, falling to the Badgers 78-63 in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated.

If anything good came out of Sunday night for the Wildcats, it's that success really isn't that far off.

The major difference between tonight and the January 23 beatdown was NU's offense, which proved that it can be lethal from the perimeter regardless of how well its opponent's defense plays.

Senior Michael "Juice" Thompson helped spark the NU offense after the Wildcats started the game in a 9-0 whole, leading the team with 19 points and hitting five of his six shots from beyond the arc.

Northwestern also got an unexpected boost from Davide Curletti, who scored a career-high 18 points and pulled down a team-high six rebounds. Curletti started in place of freshman Jershon Cobb, who was out due to a hip injury that he suffered in practice before last week's game against Penn State.

Curletti's play on both ends of the court seemed to spark his teammates and impressed Carmody.

"Curletti certainly gave us a boost," he said. "He could stay in front of those guys a little bit better than Luka [Mirkovic]."

While Curletti and Thompson turned in solid performances, Mirkovic and the NU bench were silent. Only four Wildcat players scored; not a formula that will win many games against a tough team in an even tougher environment.

However, the offense did prove that it has four shooters who can score in double figures against the No. 12 team in the country, and it proved even further that it has found a go-to guy in Thompson.

The offense is NCAA Tournament material. But as that old cliché tells us, defense wins championships, and yet again the NU defense turned in a subpar performance.

"We're just having a hard time stopping people," said Carmody. "I don't know what to say. We can't just outscore people, we've got to get some stops too."

Stops were hard to come by for the Wildcats, who were clearly overmatched by Wisconsin's big men inside, particularly Jon Leuer, who scored 26 points and collected six rebounds in a dominant senior night performance.

Unlike Northwestern, the Badgers are built around their inside game and they exploited their physical dominance over the Wildcats all night. Carmody acknowledged that he wasn't surprised by Wisconsin's strong game offensively.

"I thought going in that we could score on these guys, but I didn't know if we could stop them," he said. "The first half definitely went that way, but in the second half we played better defense."

Marginally better, yes. In fact, Northwestern cut the Wisconsin lead to three in the second half after facing a 13-point halftime deficit. However, Wisconsin pulled away in the end, thanks to a combination of dominant play beyond the arc and in the paint.

In the end, Wisconsin had 78 points; the same total it ended with just over a month ago in Evanston.

By the numbers, Northwestern showed no improvement. But there was a stretch during the second half where the defense found its rhythm, switching to man-to-man, and made the Badgers work for shots.

"We've got to work on [man-to-man defense], but I like it," Carmody said.

Is that the answer to NU's defensive woes? Who knows. However, something needs to change, and that may be the spark the Wildcats need to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament.

Nobody expects Northwestern to have an elite defense--the Wildcats don't have the size other Big Ten teams possess--but it needs to find a way to hold its own in the paint and let its offense take control.

Sunday's game wasn't a win in any way, shape, or form for Northwestern. A 15-point loss is nothing to celebrate.

However, if nothing else, the Wildcats provided hope for the future. And with some defensive tweaks and more consistent offensive contributions from the bench, success won't be very far off.

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