Collins, to compete, needs six players to take the floor for the vast majority of minutes. Without any playable point guard and one big man, he's left without any lineup flexibility and serious stamina problems.
Are we at all surprised that Northwestern is starting every game better than it finishes? Rather than playing like the team that used to come on late, it's holding off the fatigue demons.
The storyline can go unnoticed, for the most part. It's, really, not about the fact that they have few guys to fill specific roles. It's that during the stretch run their key players have no legs—they tire and they lose.
Against Minnesota, the Wildcats had nothing left. From the six-minute mark forward, they essentially stopped scoring. It squandered an excellent 30-minute performance against a middle of the pack conference team. It also rested on fatigue. Jershon Cobb, though plagued by foul trouble, lacked the same explosiveness. It's what happens when you play nearly 40 minutes.
Drew Crawford played all 40, which seemed ridiculous given his struggles and overall 1-of-15 outing. Collins has no ability to spell him for any period of time, leaving his star senior in there to slump.
It was reminiscent of Nebraska, where the team was short on almost every late-game shot. It was reminiscent of Ohio State, when the defense was sloppy coming out of the locker room and allowed the Buckeyes to dominate. There's a reason teams dig to the bench; Northwestern just doesn't have one.
Against Ohio State, Chris Collins was at least wary enough to identify the problem. He tried to maximize the work from true freshman Nathan Taphorn—who played well—and limited Alex Olah to 25 minutes of play. Still, you can basically summarize their problems with: Not enough depth.
Usually when a head coach admits that he can only play six or seven guys—which Collins did—the team tends to struggle. Frankly, if the team even had a few more role players, they would likely be winners of two more games and in NIT contention. This team would give anything for another year of, say, Alex Marcotullio or even a Davide Curletti-type backup center.
Collins arrived to enough high-end talent. Sure, look at the top two scorers and think: "Hey, this roster isn't so bad." But NU starts the game with only one roster reinforcement, and when analyzing minutes, slumping Kale Abrahamson is really the sixth relevant man. Aside from Nikola Cerina and his nine or 10 minutes a game, there's nothing else to work with.
Former starting point guard Dave Sobolewski watched his career crater by January. He's failed to score since Jan. 2 against Wisconsin, and was also recruited over when NU landed 2014 point guard Johnnie Vassar. It's been so grim that Sobo, who once received a vote of confidence from Collins, cannot even crack this lineup. Collins would rather round out Cobb's skillset than risk playing the former point guard—his defensive liability too much.
True freshman Nate Taphorn was once vying for the fifth starting spot. As is natural for some freshmen, though, his skills failed to translate to game time. He's too quick on his three-point release, rushing shots while failing to make any sort of defensive mark on a defensive-minded team. That latter quality probably explains his lack of relevance: Collins understands that he can only win grind-it-out games in the 50s, given that the offense can't generate anything.
This isn't even remotely an indictment of the old regime, which recruited these players. Every guy makes a significant difference, and the addition of 2014 point guard Jaren Sina would have greatly improved this unit. I keep saying this about McIntosh: NU doesn't even have a point guard, so the presence of one—even if he struggled initially—would make this team much better immediately.
Now, though, it's difficult not to understand the pressure facing Cobb and Crawford, their stars. They're on this defensive team without the ability to play fully aggressive defense. (They can't commit two or three fouls too quickly.) They need to score "30 or 40 points" combined, Collins said, with this being a heavy burden—as both are more comfortable as secondary scorers. They face intense attention from opposing defenses, because not many guys can play, and not many of those available guys can score.
But any novice basketball coach will tell his players: When the shots are falling short, you're getting tired. Without overanalyzing the current state of NU basketball, we can sum everything up with that.
Collins faces this difficult situation in his first year. For a while, he survived with his depth. Games with fewer possessions aid teams like this, who need to keep player fresh and out of high-tempo contests.
Now, he's not, and it's very directly related to a lack of offense and to the constant fatigue problem. The stars are playing 40 minutes, the center's playing an unbelievable 30, and nothing has clicked late in close games.
Perhaps in Columbus, Collins understood that it would take more from the bench. I'm not sure why he hasn't moved James Montgomery III into the situational defensive lineup. I'm not sure how bad Sobo has really been in practice to warrant full benching. But, fact is, he's so committed to sticking with six guys that it bears consideration. Just a rookie head coach, Collins does not lack for confidence with his decisions.
These things, though, add up. Four losses later, it's easy to explain Northwestern's struggles with the obvious. No team this shallow can compete for that long.