Lack of team basketball costs Wildcats

The Wildcats were blown out in Iowa Thursday, as expected. But three games into the Big Ten season, it's more than the final scores that are disappointing, writes Steven Goldstein.

We've seen most of this coming for months now. We knew Northwestern lacked the slashers and shooters to beat a team like Michigan; we knew Alex Olah wouldn't be able to keep up against a team like Iowa. The Big Ten is the best conference in the country right now — and a most unforgiving one for rebuilding.

But those with the masochistic drive to keep following the Wildcats this season likely don't concern themselves with the 25-point blowouts every other night. All that needs to be seen right now is some semblance of improvement, some proof that Chris Collins' system is slowly gaining legs.

What we didn't see coming this late into the season is the startling lack of team basketball that was played Thursday night. NU's 26-point loss to No. 20 Iowa isn't out of the ordinary at this point, but finding another team in recent history to put up just four assists all game is likely impossible. And bungling to 67 points is about as good as it's going to get for the Wildcats, but having three players make more than two shots fails to meet even the lowest of expectations.

The Wildcats spent most of Thursday's possessions shuffling the ball around the perimeter and setting up corner shots, but still made an unseemly 20 percent of threes. Northwestern couldn't find spacing Thursday, so noticeably to the point that Tre Demps and Drew Crawford collided in a set midway through the second half. And the team failed to cut to the lane as pick-and-rolls came up empty and isolations for Crawford and Jershon Cobb became long twos. The Wildcats were facing one of the tallest defenses in the conference, yet they were unable to make a major change even when the score was well out of reach. Giving Aaron Liberman the game's final minute was among the most significant strategic adjustments.

That's not to say Collins and his staff are being negligent or underperforming. Rather, it marks a sense of futility. The Cats can't do anything without a competent point guard or center; Dave Sobolewski had more turnovers than points and assists combined, while Olah fouled out after taking just three shots and recording two boards. But it's necessary to at least exercise some creativity going forward, if for nothing else than the developments of Demps and Cobb, the latter of whom looked like the No. 1 scorer he'll have to be next season with 18 points on 13 shots. Northwestern lacks shooters to maintain the offense it's running, and will need to use more cuts, overloads and screens to shake the struggles of this young Big Ten season. Even though the looks the Wildcats are getting are good, the shots still aren't falling, and that brings arduous but necessary adjustments.

With two transfers already, Collins will enter next year with much of his inherited roster gone. It's an enticing prospect, and in a lame duck year without players he brought in, it's understandably challenging to shove pieces in and make things work. Bryant McIntosh should immensely help at the point, but as PW's Michael Hlebasko wrote Thursday, talking about incoming players doesn't do much until they actually come in.

Northwestern has a woefully mismatched roster, and Chris Collins knew that well before taking his job. Now the coach who's set up the future can only make a team so bad in the present look anything


Purple Wildcats Top Stories