The Northwestern Wildcats suffered their first bad loss of the season against the Illinois Fighting Illini. It might be easy to begin panicking. Don’t.
Northwestern’s desperation was increased as the clock ticked down. The Wildcats trailed by four points and Bryant McIntosh was probing through the paint. Waiting for the defense to suck in and track him. That is when he fired a pass to the perimeter to Gavin Skelly for a wide-open three.
Dererk Pardon gathered the rebound and fired it back to McIntosh for another open 3-pointer.
That was how Northwestern’s night went against Illinois. Down four points and needing some momentum, the Wildcats got the shots they needed. they simply would not fall.
For the first time in this “dream” season, Northwestern fell 68-61 to Illinois and suffered what might be called their first “bad” loss of the season. It was the Wildcats’ first “bad” loss this season. And with the schedule getting tougher (Wisconsin and Maryland are next) and Scottie Lindsey still out, Northwestern is facing its first bit of adversity this season.
For a program with the history it is trying to defy and the Big Ten packed together so tightly as it is, there is a little bit of nervousness about THE SEASON.
The simple answer to those fears are, in the words of Aaron Rodgers, to R-E-L-A-X.
The Wildcats still control their own destiny. The loss to Illinois is bad, but not crippling. The Wildcats could use another win over a marquee Big Ten program to further solidify their tournament resume. But so long as they avoid any more bad losses and pick up a win against another of the Big Ten’s growing middle, the Wildcats control their own destiny.
And that is the important part to remember in all of this. The Wildcats are still on track. They just have to take care of their own business.
The path to the NCAA Tournament is still laid out. And the Wildcats have proven they can beat anyone — a buzzer-beating loss to KenPom No. 23 Butler and wins over No. 33 Wake Forest and No. 34 Dayton.
But they do need their star players playing well and healthy. They survived the injury to Dererk Pardon in December, certainly missing him in the loss at Michigan State. But the injury to Scottie Lindsey has put stress on their offense. Especially with Bryant McIntosh struggling to shoot.
McIntosh hit 8 of his 20 shots and got off to a rough start in the first half. His shooting has generally decreased this year — down to 42.3 percent effective field goal percentage. His drop in production is a big reason Northwestern has not been able to compete with those big three teams ahead of them in the standings.
The Wildcats get their shot at Wisconsin and Maryland next. Coming out of those two games with losses will leave Northwestern on shakier, but expected ground.
It is the games against Illinois, Indiana and Michigan in late February to close the season that will determine Northwestern’s fate. Two of those games are rematches on the road. The Wildcats may need two of those three to clinch a tournament berth before the Big Ten Tournament. Certainly they cannot lose all three.
That is further down the road. For now, the Wildcats need to focus on themselves. They cannot lose confidence and believe their work to get open looks will get rewarded down the line. Northwestern has shown it is good enough to win these games. And if the Wildcats can steal one of the next two, even better.
The important point to remember for suddenly panicked Wildcats fans is that the Cats control their own destiny. They are not scoreboard watching. They put themselves in the position to go out and win their games — specifically the rest of the game they are supposed oto — and make the Tournament.
That is the right Northwestern earned earlier in the season.
This is not to say the Wildcats are in. No team can probably say that at this point. Or at least very few.
Northwestern has to win games. To do that, they will need to make shots (duh) and get more consistency from Bryant McIntosh and get Scottie Lindsey back healthy. The Wildcats do no thave the depth clearly to withstand a loss of one of their key perimeter players.
Tuesday’s loss to Illinois makes things a little tough. There is a bit more urgency to maintain the privilege of controlling their own destiny.
But the Wildcats are not in panic mode. Not yet, at least. They need a win to regain some confidence. They need health to regain some confidence. And once they get that, they should be back on track for their first ever NCAA tournament bid.