NU Facing The Ultimate Must-Win

Bill Carmody isn't big on the "must-win" label, nor is he big on calling any game "the biggest game in Northwestern." But now, after yet another close loss and another what-if — this time a 75-73 defeat against Ohio State — he has no choice.

Saturday's game against Iowa is a must-win, the biggest game in Northwestern history and whatever other superlative you want to throw out there. It didn't have to be, not if NU had finished off its furious comeback against Ohio State. But after another missed opportunity, Saturday is the biggest day in Northwestern basketball history, without a doubt.

However, despite the disappointment stemming from another close loss, not much changed for NU after tonight.

Ohio State did everything it was expected to do against the Wildcats. The Buckeyes owned the boards, grabbing a 44-18 rebounding advantage against an out-sized NU team. The Cats, as they have so many times this season, exploited their superior three-point shooting ability and neutralized the rebounding disparity by forcing turnovers.

The Buckeyes' clear objective coming in was to grab points down low, and they did that, as big men Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas had 22 and 19 points, respectively. For the Cats to stay in the game they needed John Shurna and Drew Crawford to come up big, and the veterans responded, scoring a respective 22 and 23 points.

But with the game on the line, all of those mismatches and all of those stats mean nothing. It comes down to execution, something NU has failed at in crunch time this season and something the Cats failed at again Wednesday night.

There's no room for another failure in the clutch.

NU certainly passes the eye test for the NCAA Tournament. The Cats have proven they can play with anybody, twice taking Michigan down to the wire and doing the same with Ohio State in addition to a win against Michigan State. All three of those teams could be among the top three seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

Buckeyes coach Thad Matta endorsed the Cats' tournament resume Saturday night after his team's narrow win.

"Yeah, yeah it is (a tournament team)," he said. "Number one, they're playing in one of the most incredible conferences I've ever seen. I think they're very talented. I would hate on Selection Sunday to see us drawing them."

If tournament selection were based on ability, NU would be sitting pretty. But tournament selection isn't based on an eye test; it's based on numbers. And in that respect, the Cats fall short.

Not much separates NU from any of the teams it lost to in close games except the final score. Saturday, the final score matters, because no matter how good the Cats look, another close loss sends NU to another NIT.

Wedesday's loss wasn't damning; there's still one more chance. But those chances are about to run out.

"I don't think a loss means too much," Crawford said. "Had we won the game it would've been a great win for us. It's not really going to keep us down at all. We're excited to finish this season strong."

A strong finish is all NU can hope for now — a strong finish to the season and a strong finish in the game itself.

As always, the Cats will likely be out-played on the boards, but will keep it close with good three-point shooting. Once again, the game will likely come down to who executes the best at the end.

This time it has to be NU that comes up in the clutch, because being a good team isn't good enough anymore, not with so many squandered opportunities like Wednesday night.

Saturday, the final score is all that matters, and "must-win" fits that game just right.

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