After being gashed in its first three conference games, Northwestern looks for any sign of life against Illinois. With little time for rest – and an impossible strength of schedule – the Wildcats are stuck in routine.
Though NU closed its non-conference schedule with a brutal last-second loss against DePaul, things have only declined since then. Five strong minutes versus Wisconsin faded into a blowout; the offense disappeared at Michigan; the inconsistency showed against Iowa.
You start with that offense, which is the lowest scoring unit in the Big Ten by five full points per game. With little reinforcement behind Drew Crawford and Jershon Cobb, the Wildcats have failed to create open looks. When they do, the shots aren't falling. The Wildcats somehow rank last in conference, making just 31 percent of their three-point field goal attempts.
"It's a tough defensive conference and that's something we have to adjust to," Crawford said on Friday. "You always have to step your game up when it comes to conference play. We haven't played well enough so far."
In his last year of eligibility, Crawford has experienced several painful losses in an NU uniform. Unlike the 2011-12 version, though, the outcomes are decided quickly. He's part of a team trying to retain its enthusiasm despite being expected to lose nearly every game for the rest of the season.
"It's tough — one of the toughest things in sports, losing like that," Crawford said. "You move on by watching the film of the game, you really have to digest everything that happened. We'll watch it as a team today, and I'll watch it later, by myself."
And imagine sitting through Iowa, twice.
At least "upset" opportunities await — none of which sound much sweeter than Illinois. The in-state rivals have played several close games in recent memory, and the Wildcats would love to just continue the trend.
There's no specific starting point, especially when you consider that the defense has generally been worse than the offense. Really, it's about NU rediscovering what it's like to find success, and if that happens, it might end up contagious. Until then, nothing much will change.
"You learn what you can do as a team to improve, what you have to do as an individual to improve," Crawford said. "You make adjustments and then move forward it. You've gotta forget about it and move onto the next game."
Northwestern and Illinois square off Sunday at 6:30 CT. The game will be televised on Big Ten Network.