Something is different about this season for Northwestern.
It is not merely the new home. The Wildcats are leaving Welsh-Ryan Arena as a shell as it undergoes renovations. The team is schlepping to Allstate Arena in not-so-nearby Rosemont.
It is not merely the pressure of reaching a second straight NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats entered the year ranked in the preseason for the first time. They were returning pretty much everyone from last year’s roster.
Indeed, Northwestern was the one with the target on its back. For the first time, defeating the Wildcats meant something. And meant something important. Teams were going to be gunning for Northwestern.
It all comes with the territory. The Wildcats are no longer the plucky underdog.
That takes a different mindset and comes with different kinds of pressures. Something entirely new to this program. The Wildcats are in uncharted territory.
The pressure remains and Northwestern wants that pressure. The team’s path to the NCAA Tournament will be as different as the team.
The Wildcats’ missed out on a great chance to score a meaningful victory Tuesday against Georgia Tech.
In another uneven game for NU, the team rallied from down 10 points in the final quarter of the game. Vic Law put his defensive clamps on the Yellow Jackets and the energy for the team picked up. Bryant McIntosh took over offensively to draw Northwestern in. Dererk Pardon gave NU the lead with seven seconds left.
But a rare defensive mix up gave Tadric Jackson a lane to the rim. Pardon was late to recover and Jackson scored a layup as time expired for the Yellow Jackets to escape 52-51.
The loss was disappointing. The Wildcats had lost another key game on a schedule that is not full of chances for marquee wins. Northwestern is beating the teams it should beat on the schedule, but leaving a lot to be desired.
None of NU’s three losses are bad — Georgia Tech is No. 63 in KenPom’s ratings, Creighton is No. 33 and Texas Tech is No. 16. None of those losses will be disqualifying for Northwestern’s quest to make the tournament. But it decreases the margin of error. The Wildcats’ last chance for a solid non-conference win comes in late December with a visit to KenPom No. 21 Oklahoma.
That may be a tall task. The Wildcats have plenty to fix in house.
The team returns much of its talent from last year. McIntosh is still there driving into the lane and creating off the dribble. Law is still there draining threes and slashing to the rim. Scottie Lindsey leads the team in scoring, despite his goose egg in Tuesday’s game, with his sharpshooting. Pardon is a grinder around the basket.
All the elements are there for this team. And each of those individual players looks better. The Wildcats have every reason to believe in this team.
Yet something is off.
The easy answer is to say the team misses its glue guy in Sanjay Lumpkin. What little Lumpkin added to the box score, he made up for with his hustle and commitment to defense. He seemed to keep everyone on task and focused on defense. If anyone embodied what it meant to “Pound the Rock,” it was Lumpkin.
Gavin Skelly has surprised everyone with his shooting. And having Aaron Falzon may yet prove to be a boost. But that extra element is missing. It took Northwestern nearly 30 minutes to find it in Atlanta on Tuesday.
In the loss to Creighton, NU never found that defensive grit. The game became a shootout as the Wildcats were unable to defend the 3-point line or stop dribble penetration. Against Texas Tech, nothing worked as McIntosh went quiet.
Last year, Northwestern found a way to overcome its shortcomings. The team always pulled through last year. This year’s team? It has yet to show that inner determination to get over the top like last year’s team did.
The talent is all there. The intangibles are not.
Things are not too late for Northwestern. The team is 4-3 with no bad losses. All three of the teams the Wildcats have lost to will compete for the NCAA Tournament. There are no impressive wins — and few opportunities to get them in non-conference play. But NCAA Tournament bids are built in the Big Ten. The conference may not be the strongest it has ever been, but there will still be opportunities to score those quality wins.
Compared to its losses to Creighton and Texas Tech, the loss to Georgia Tech showed tremendous growth. The Wildcats can still become the team everyone thought they could be.
But the margin for error is smaller. And the games start counting much sooner than normal. Friday’s game against Illinois feels like a must win to regain confidence in these big games and to begin gaining separation from the middle of the Big Ten. Unlike last year, the non-conference schedule is not there to support the team. Northwestern’s resume will come almost completely from Big Ten play.
The magic of last season has dissipated. The Wildcats are not the same team they were last year. Expectations have grown and the pressure has grown.
It does not mean NU cannot still rise to occastion.
But the path to the NCAA Tournament will be different. This is not last year’s team at all.