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Northwestern Wildcats exposed at Illinois, warts and all

The Northwestern Wildcats remain on track to make their first NCAA Tournament. But there are some clear weaknesses that continue to get exposed.

The Northwestern Wildcats are a bubble team. Or not a bubble team. The Wildcats are still fairly safe that they will get into the NCAA Tournament. About the only thing that will prevent Northwestern from its first NCAA Tournament is a complete collapse, losing the final five games of the season.

This is Northwestern, though. That bug always exists. The Wildcats are always a collapse away from terror. This is the program that has seen impossible leads collapse and every opportunity to make the tournament.

When you are doing something for the first time, every loss gets jittery. Especially when they come against a team that is clearly not making the tournament in Illinois. Especially when that Illinois team seems to have your number.

There are bigger problems than losing the Illini twice for the Wildcats. Northwestern has seen its big weaknesses exposed in the last two games — a win over Rutgers and a loss to Illinois. The Wildcats grip on their Tournament dreams is strong, but there are signs it is loosening.

And Northwestern must correct these if it is to make that run and do what was previously impossible.

The Wildcats though are not a shoo-in to the Big Dance. They still have work to do. They are likely to continue running into these same problems.

Scottie Lindsey, playing his second game after missing three weeks with mono, continues to work his way into the rotation. He shot 1 for 11 in 26 minutes during Northwestern’s 66-50 loss to Illinois on Tuesday.

That was a symptom of a larger problem. With Victor Law in foul trouble for much of the game and Lindsey recovering, the offense fell fully on Bryant McIntosh. It created the kind of inefficient and desperate offense that made Northwestern look like. . .  Northwestern.

The Wildcats shot 5 for 27 (18.5 percent) in the second half. This after a first half where they struggled with turnovers and keeping their head above water. Northwestern was lucky to be down by one at the half with some of the poor play.

The second half became an exercise in watching McIntosh try to create and finding little room or gap to score. McIntosh finished with 16 points on 6-for-17 shooting. Hardly the efficient night.

This was somewhat similar to how Saturday’s game against Rutgers went too.

Northwestern struggled to gain much offensive traction until McIntosh saved the day late. McIntosh was able to make the plays as Northwestern kept the game close. Much of that game was spent finding the guts to pull out a win. It was a moment coach Chris Collins said he was proud of his team for.

That will to win will take Northwestern far. But it cannot take them all the way. Not when the team is playing so inefficiently.

It was a stark reminder of how fragile Northwestern’s offense is. The team relies heavily on its main scorers — Law, Lindsey and McIntosh. When they struggle, the team struggles dramatically.

And things got worse because of what happened on the other end. Northwestern, despite having Dererk Pardon, struggles to control bigs well. Illinois had 11 offensive rebounds and

Illinois had 11 offensive rebounds and Maverick Morgan was a presence inside with nine points and 11 rebounds. The Wildcats could not control the glass and get transition opportunities throughout the night. Not even when the team gave up a respectable 37.0 percent shooting in the second half.

Securing the offensive glass was a big reason Rutgers stayed in and had a chance to give Northwestern a crippling loss last weekend. The Scarlet Knights recorded 17 offensive rebounds, scoring a bevy of second-chance points.

Northwestern’s defense gave the team every opportunity to get back into the game. And the team could not find the shots. The team settled for bad shots and could not crack Illinois’ suddenly strong defense.

Like the first time Northwestern lost to Illinois, this is not a killer loss. It does not kill Northwestern’s Tournament visions. The Wildcats still control their own destiny. And likely one more win — at Indiana, vs. Michigan and vs. Purdue — gets them into the Tournament. The Wildcats are still on pace to get a two-day bye at the Big Ten Tournament, although that competition has heated up now too thanks to losses to Minnesota and Michigan State earlier this season.

Northwestern has found it is not a straight line to the NCAA Tournament. It never would be for the Wildcats.

The Wildcats have done well to put themselves in the driver’s seat. But they are not home yet. They have some clear weaknesses. Rutgers dominated the inside as did Caleb Swannigan and Purdue. So too did Illinois.

Throw in Northwestern’s inconsistent offensive attack — going through a drought of late — and there are clear holes for the Wildcats. There are clear areas they need to improve.

NU is on track to make that first NCAA Tournament berth. But nothing is ever for sure with Northwestern.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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