The Big Ten Network will make all Northwestern fans feel warm and fuzzy with a documentary about the team’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament. The buzz from that first trip still seems to be wearing off on the team. They entered the year ranked in the top 25 for the first time.
There was a ton of optimism about the upcoming season. Every important player from last year’s team (save Sanjay Lumpkin) returned. The Wildcats, even playing in far away Allstate Arena, had big expectations.
When Chris Collins told fans that Northwestern was just getting started after making the program’s first NCAA Tournament, this was the kind of season that would prove it. The Wildcats were talented and growing. They were ready to take that next step.
Northwestern has not quite lived up to those expectations. The Wildcats are 9-5 without a marquee win. Their best win this season has come against KenPom No. 87 Illinois. All but one of the team’s five losses have come to teams ranked ahead of Northwestern in KenPom rankings and tournament teams. Only the last-second loss at KenPom No. 130 Georgia Tech looks like a black stain on the resume.
Still, Northwestern does not have that marquee win. Not only does the team not have the marquee win, but it has not looked strong in the process. The Wildcats are largely uninspiring.
Northwestern has not seen veteran players step up to the plate in many ways. Bryant McIntosh is averaging 13.9 points per game and 5.6 assists per game, but shooting just 39.0 percent from the floor. Scottie Lindsey is averaging a team-best 14.8 points per game but shooting only 35.0 percent from beyond the arc.
Vic Law has been stellar averaging 13.7 points per game and shooting an efficient 61.1 percent effective field goal percentage. Injuries have slowed him down, including a concussion that kept him out of Friday’s game against Oklahoma.
But the individual statistics and individual play do not quite capture what is wrong with Northwestern. The team has struggled in some massive ways. Losses to Texas Tech by 36 points and to Oklahoma by 26 points revealed something much deeper.
In both of those games, the Wildcats gave up a ton of 3-pointers — 10-for-19 shooting to the Red Raiders and 17 for 28 to the Sooners including eight to freshman stud Trae Young. They also gave up a ton of penetration.
The Wildcats’ defense, in short, has been bad.
KenPom ranks Northwestern’s defensive rating as the 75th best in the country. The Wildcats were 32nd last year. The team was a defensive juggernaut last year. A team that was as tough to score on as it was to stop. That is what elevated the team into the NCAA Tournament.
It seems the team is missing that grit from the one player who graduated off last year’s team. Sanjay Lumpkin may not have provided much in the way of offense, but he brought a grit and determination that defined Northwestern’s breakthrough season. That is the grit and determination the team is missing.
Of course, every program has to find a way to replace seniors. It is nothing new to have to do that. The Wildcats would have to scramble and do so to make the NCAA Tournament. They have the talent clearly.
But that absent intangible that Lumpkin and last year’s chase provided has certainly hurt Northwestern. The team is still looking for that edge. And that hunt has shown itself in the way the team has played this year. The Wildcats have disappointed, but they have shown flashes of what they can be.
Northwestern is not off the bubble yet. The Wildcats will enter Big Ten play squarely on the bubble. At No. 55 in the KenPom ratings, the team has work to do. Even in a down Big Ten, the team should still have the opportunity to pick up good wins and bolster that resume.
Northwestern still controls much of its destiny to achieve that goal and make a second straight NCAA Tournament. But the team has yet to show signs of righting the ship. Two 25-plus point losses to Tournament quality teams does not bode well.
The Wildcats will have to fix plenty of issue within to get themselves to the level they expect to be at.
Northwestern has its work cut out for it to make the tournament this year.