The Northwestern Wildcats struggled to hit their shots, but stayed tough until the end against the Michigan State Spartans on the road.
The Northwestern Wildcats went nearly 11 minutes without a field goal in the second half. It mirrored a stretch in the first half when the Wildcats also could not score a basket at all and fell behind by 19 points. This is typically a formula for a blowout, the kind of crushing defeat that reminds Northwestern who it is and crushes dreams.
Especially at the Breslin Center against Michigan State.
This was not a disaster. Nor an embarrassing defeat. A disappointment in a loss? Absolutely. Northwestern is beyond moral victories as the team feels closer than ever to its first NCAA Tournament berth as Big Ten season begins. These are the game the Wildcats have to learn to win.
But in Northwestern’s 61-52 loss to Michigan State on Friday, the team showed a ton of character, even more fight and a resiliency without playing their best effort nearly to topple the premiere program in the Big Ten (even in a down year).
The Wildcats showed a lot, but ultimately fell short because of their own mistakes. It is hard to win games when a team is not making shots. And down by four for what seemed like two or three minutes, Northwestern could not make a basket. Bryant McIntosh ran the pick and roll and got to the basket and could not hit his scoop shot to bring Northwestern tantalizingly close. Victor Law and Scottie Lindsey missed 3-pointers.
Eventually, Michigan State, led by Nick Ward and his 11 points and nine rebounds, were able to wear down Northwestern’s thin front court. The Spartans made 3-pointers and timely shots and eventually pulled away, using their strong defensive identity to create just a little bit of cushion.
With Bryan McIntosh (3 for 14) and Scottie Lindsey (3 for 11) struggling from the floor and Northwestern relying heavily on the 3-pointer (seven of the team’s 19 total field goals were 3-pointers), the offense dried up at the worst time and NU could not recover.
Defense often increases and gets more physical in Big Ten play. The Wildcats learned that the hard way Friday.
Northwestern’s hard-nosed rebounding
Northwestern and rebounding typically do not go together. The team has never had a dominant inside force or very many crazy athletic rebounders to dig out the 50-50 balls on missed shots.
Especially without sophomore center Derek Pardon, it is hard to see much size in Northwestern. And that went double when Barrett Benson succumbed to early foul trouble and then eventually his backup, forward Gavin Skelly, also suffered foul trouble before fouling out.
Northwestern had to play small against Ward with Nathan Taphorn and Sanjay Lumpkin defending him and Northwestern having to double the post hard to get the ball out of his hands.
They executed that part extremely well and, somewhat surprisingly, had complete control of the glass. Considering the team’s lack of size and ample missed shots throughout the game.
Northwestern lost the raw rebound battle 43-27, but a lot of that is a product of their massive amount of missed shots — Northwestern shot 35.8 percent for the game and 28.6 percent in the second half.
The Wildcats grabbed six offensive rebounds for a decent 15.4 percent offensive rebound rate. The Spartans had 10 for a 32.3 percent offensive rebound rate.
Michigan State still won the battle on the glass statistically. And in the end, those extra opportunities hurt Northwestern ultimately.
But as the Wildcats needed to get back into the game, they pulled down some killer rebounds. Victor Law finished with nine rebounds to go with his 16 points. Sanjay Lumpkin had six. That is 15 of the Wildcats’ 27 total rebounds.
Many of these were not easy rebounds either. The Wildcats are going to rely on this rebounding to make up for their lack of size until Pardon returns or until Benson becomes more reliable in the post.
3-pointers are success and failure
Northwestern made nearly half their field goals from beyond the arc, hitting seven of 19 3-pointers. The Wildcats made just 12 of 34 shots inside the arc. The Wildcats were not afraid to hoist from beyond the arc and it was what kept them in the game and took them out of it.
The Wildcats are not a bad 3-point shooting team by any stretch. They shoot 37.5 percent from beyond the arc for the season. Northwestern is a good shooting team.
But, as with most shooting teams, there can be an overreliance on the shot. And Northwestern fell into that trap on several occasions Friday.
Michigan State did a good job setting the tone defensively with some physical play on the perimeter. They did a good job keeping Northwestern from driving into the lane and going through their basic ball reversals around the perimeter.
Eventually, this led to the team hoisting 3-pointers because there were no other options.
Lindsey made 3 of his 6 attempts. Bryant McIntosh missed all three of his in a rough night for him. Sanjay Lumpkin made 1 of 3.
The Wildcats were OK from beyond the arc. But their struggle to get shots to go in and create quality opportunities haunted them throughout the game.
Bryant McIntosh has to play well
Bryant McIntosh’s struggles this year are quickly becoming a rough story for Northwestern’s feel-good bid.
McIntosh made just 3 of 14 shots to score seven points and go with five assists. That included a couple of tough misses close to the basket late in the game that would have helped Northwestern pull ever closer.
McIntosh’s shooting struggles have been prevalent all season. He is averaging just 11.7 points per game and shooting 35.1 percent from the floor and 24.6 percent from beyond the arc. These are all well below his career averages for the stellar point guard.
The Wildcats do not need McIntosh to be on the ball or carry the scoring load like he did last year, but he is still their best player breaking players down off the dribble. He is still their best player making decisions and getting into the lane to create for others.
Northwestern needs more from McIntosh to succeed and achieve their goals.
McIntosh still plays that way, he is just not making shots. And that was even more stark in Friday’s loss. When Northwestern needed a basket, McIntosh could not deliver. His cold start to the season could hold Northwestern back.