A little over a month ago, Northwestern men’s and women’s Basketball both sat at 12-1 heading into conference play. Now, both teams are on five-game losing streaks and are struggling to keep up in conference play. The men’s team got demolished by consecutive ranked foes, while the women’s squad was unable to pull off another upset against Ohio State before falling to Iowa at home. So let’s take a look at the NUmbers behind the week in Northwestern men’s and women’s Basketball.
Northwestern came into the season expecting to play a short rotation, but it’s clear now that head coach Joe McKeown has a very limited group to work with. Northwestern’s “Big Four” — Nia Coffey, Ashley Deary, Maggie Lyon and Christian Inman — have played 96.25 percent of the possible minutes over the past two games. That is, the four have played 308 of the 320 minutes they could have been on the court in two games. With those four playing extended minutes, the ‘Cats have become weary and tired at times, especially late in games, which brings us to our second NUmber.
Northwestern has been outscored by 18 points in the fourth quarter over their past two games. Iowa outscored the ‘Cats 25-14 in the fourth quarter, while the Buckeyes outscored Northwestern 26-19 in the final frame. With their starters playing most of the minutes, by the fourth quarter, the ‘Cats are run down and not at the top of their game. If Lyon, Deary, Inman and Coffey were playing fewer minutes, the ‘Cats might be able to sustain comebacks or maintain leads in the fourth quarter. Instead, with tired legs, the defense often lags and shooting falls off, leading the ‘Cats to a 2-8 record in conference play so far.
Northwestern’s defense has slipped during Big Ten play and especially over the past week, and it hasn’t just been in the fourth quarter. The ‘Cats ranked among the best teams in the Big Ten before the start of conference play in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense, but they’ve slipped to the middle-of-the-pack since. And over the past two games, they’ve allowed their opponents to shoot 47 percent from the field, far exceeding the 35 percent they were allowing at the start of conference play. It’s beginning to sound like a broken record at this point, but because of Northwestern’s short rotation and minimal rest for its “Big Four,” the ‘Cats are tiring and, in turn, slowly falling apart.
For a team that shoots a lot of three-pointers (read: 555, most in the Big Ten as of Sunday night), Northwestern isn’t making nearly enough of them. The ‘Cats shot a woeful 17.4 percent from deep against Michigan State, and only 20.7 percent on field goals overall. Those numbers improved but not to an effective-enough level against Iowa, where Northwestern shot 36.7 percent on threes and 41.9 percent overall. The Wildcats must either begin to find their stroke or change their offensive strategy by looking to score inside more often; doing so would at least keep opposing defenses more honest and in turn create more open shots beyond the arc. A more consistent inside scoring presence may be what the Wildcats need to wake up offensively.
Speaking of changing strategies, Northwestern may look to do that on the defensive side as well. Despite its success against non-conference teams as well as Big Ten opponents like Maryland, Northwestern’s zone defense has been badly exploited by good three-point shooting teams in Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa. In the games against the Spartans and Hawkeyes, Northwestern allowed 51.1 percent shooting from deep, including an astoundingly 61.5 percent against Michigan State. Less proficient shooting teams are on deck for the Wildcats, but Chris Collins’ crew may not be talented enough defensively to just play man-to-man for the rest of the season. Needless to say, Northwestern needs a better and more reliable defensive effort if it wants to get back to winning games.
A bright spot for Northwestern on Sunday was Tre Demps’ brilliant game against Iowa. The senior dropped a career-high 30 points on 11-of-22 shooting, including six three pointers. A career-high game for a scorer like Demps is impressive, given the big games he’s had earlier in his career and the struggles he’s had this season. That being said, Demps has yet to put together a string of good games, alternating between good and bad performances so far in conference play. He shot only 2-of-14 from the field for four points against Michigan State after scoring 17 against Indiana at Assembly Hall. With younger players like Bryant McIntosh and Aaron Falzon struggling right now, Northwestern fans should hope that Demps’ hot shooting against Iowa can carry over into the next few contests.