Five Thoughts: Northwestern-Nebraska

Hlebasko: "Northwestern played down to exactly the level of its competition."

— "Classic Northwestern." I received two texts that said this phrase shortly after Saturday's loss. I heard a few students saying it as we filed out of Welsh-Ryan as well. Everyone was right on. Northwestern laid an egg, at home no less, just when they had a chance to show everyone that they were for real. The student body did their part. Both student sections were full by the first media timeout. No, the atmosphere wasn't raucous, but Northwestern didn't give their fans anything to cheer for most of the game. Late in the game, when Northwestern fought back into the game with consecutive threes by Drew Crawford, the crowd did its part. Northwestern's basketball team simply didn't.

Looking at the box score, the two teams were nearly identical. Nebraska had two more makes on one more field goal attempt, the two teams were even on rebounds at 31, and Northwestern committed 13 turnovers to Nebraska's 12. Northwestern hit one more three on two more attempts. Northwestern clearly played down to exactly the level of its competition, and Nebraska made them pay for it. Northwestern fans have been here so many times before. Right when everyone gets excited, the rug gets pulled out. And it happened to two sections full of students, who came to a game against one of the worst teams in the conference at noon on a Saturday and filled their role capably. Right or wrong, it's going to take a little time for the program to rebuild that equity with fans.

— The main problem with the offense today was the pace. Not just the pace in terms of the number of possessions, but the pace of ball movement and thought as well. Nebraska came with some pressure at various times during the game, and they did it with athleticism and intensity. But they did rotate well and the pressure was always a house of cards one light breeze away from collapsing. Northwestern, meanwhile, held onto the ball and waited too often. The number of times players picked up their dribble and stood straight up hoping for a foul or a desperation pass was staggering. Even when players got open, their teammates couldn't process the developments fast enough. Passing lanes were there, but Northwestern became too tentative to create them. That is a mental issue more than a physical or schematic one.

They can put some things in during practice to get players into the right spots when the pressure comes, but you have to be able to trust your players to pass out of double teams to open men, and Northwestern didn't do that today. The speed of thought on offense has been a huge problem all season. Northwestern's guards regularly miss open cutters to the basket, especially big men off the pick and roll, because they are reading and reacting to the defense far too slowly. This is where having point guards in name only hurts a team the most. Cobb and Demps are capable at getting the ball from free throw line to free throw line, but you need a point guard to do more than that.

— I haven't made any secret of my belief that Northwestern is a better team with Dave Sobolewski out of the lineup, but even I wonder if he should get DNP-CDs the rest of the way. The offense is so awful. In small stretches against the bench units of other teams, I still believe that Sobolewski can give this team some help on offense, while being adequately hidden on defense. Jershon Cobb has done a good job as a nominal point guard, but with their shooting woes this team really needs him to play off the ball more often. Tre Demps is a great spark plug, but the Nebraska game illustrated his limitations as a ball-handler for long stretches of time. He is a bit of a ball-stopper, and if he doesn't hit one of his first few jumpers he is unlikely to get the rest of his game going. I know that this team has cultivated an identity on the court that Sobo doesn't really fit into, though Kale Abrahamson doesn't fit into it either. The offense could use Sobo in small doses.

— As much as the loss stings, it took 11 games for Northwestern to lose a conference game to a team that wasn't unequivocally better than them. Losing to inferior teams (and Nebraska is one) is never good; having one or two rough games was always in the cards for this year's team. Even if they lose out, they outperformed expectations in the conference. Sure, that 5-13 would feel horrible given how things started, but if you guaranteed the average Northwestern fan exactly five conference wins on January 1st, the vast majority would have accepted without blinking. The staff has to get better at adjusting to zone defenses and pressure in the half court. But it's fair to note that one of the halftime adjustments Collins clearly made, looking to take advantage of double teams and slow rotation and find open shooters in the corners, worked perfectly. The team had five to seven legitimately wide-open corner threes that didn't go in. That's not on the coaches, and honestly it's not all that much on the players either. Great coaches do not attack their players for making physical errors—only mental ones. And while there were mental mistakes tonight, you would expect Northwestern to win this game based solely on the shots each team took. Terran Petteway made some incredible shots, and Walter Pitchford hit a dagger three with Alex Olah contesting perfectly. My last column touched on the fact that getting into close games with bad teams could see Northwestern's late game luck even out, and that is part of what happened today. Northwestern didn't play well enough to deserve a win, but I don't think it's fair to say that Nebraska clearly did either.

— I was very impressed with the way the team kept it together mentally despite some shoddy officiating. It wasn't the reason for Northwestern's loss, but this game was one of the most poorly officiated games I've seen all year. The most obvious missed call was after a JerShon Cobb layup was blocked after hitting the backboard, an automatic goaltend, and play continued leading to a Nebraska layup. That was a four-point swing, making what should have been a four point game an eight point game. Northwestern's next three trips yielded eight points, and they got two defensive rebounds and one steal in the same span. Then, with a chance to take the lead, Tre Demps missed a pretty good look from the free throw line and Olah committed a silly foul over the back on Pitchford. The ensuing free throws gave Nebraska the lead it wouldn't relinquish, but Northwestern showed serious character by reeling off that 8-0 run following referee Jim Burr's blunder.

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