A season to learn a lesson, then three days to forget it (Men’s Basketball)

Adam Rittenberg Column

It would be easy to blame it on Alando Tucker, who spent more time in the paint than Picasso. Or how about Kirk Penney? Shucks, he always seems to turn it on against the purple and white. Oh, here’s one: Northwestern always seems to get the worst officiating crews in the Big Ten. And the zebras stole that basket right before halftime. That’s gotta be it.

There are plenty of ways to rationalize how a team can lose control in three days. The truth just hurts too much. After a Big Ten season without defense, rebounding or energy, NU teased everyone on Wednesday night with a 74-61 victory over Indiana. It even got fans dreaming of a Michigan-like turnaround.

But then the make-up came off. The glass slipper shattered. NU revealed its true self: a team that is often overmatched and perennially passive.

“You can’t be a laid-back team,” guard Jitim Young said after Saturday’s 74-59 setback against Wisconsin.

But much too often, NU is exactly that.

Facing an adept Badgers squad, the Wildcats missed three layups in the game’s first 2:21. They couldn’t keep Tucker away from the basket. They couldn’t mark Penney behind the arc. They couldn’t get offensive rebounds or get back when Wisconsin ran the break.

Sometimes everything doesn’t go right. Opposing teams will shoot the ball well. They will pose match-up problems. There will be bad calls. The Cats will always be at a disadvantage in conference games.

So deal with it.

They did that last season. In home games against Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Purdue, it was the Cats’ game to lose. They came out as the aggressor, rallied around two senior leaders and responded to mismatches. Defense was a given. So was intensity. That team sent a message: We belong.

On Wednesday night they showed a little bit of that presence. But three days later, it was gone again.

“We allowed them to set the tone,” Young said.

Coach Bill Carmody can do a lot for this program. He has brought in a system that, when effective, can beat bigger, stronger and more athletic teams. He has brought in players, such as Vedran Vukusic and Mohamed Hachad, who will mesh with his system. He’s not a master motivator, but a teacher whose passion for the game is unmatched.

But he can’t teach hunger.

“I just feel like we didn’t have that look in our eyes, it just wasn’t the same,” Carmody said on Saturday. “I thought we would respond and react to everything they did, put the pressure on and make them make plays. They made the plays they wanted to make.

“We had a horrible practice, one of the worst of the year, right before Indiana. Then we had a fantastic practice yesterday.”

Go figure.

NU’s inconsistency results from a lack of leadership. Last year, Tavaras Hardy and Collier Drayton refused to let their senior season slip away. Drayton was a terrible shooter, not much of a rebounder, but a worker. And his flair, especially on defense, made those around him better.

Class of 2003, take note: Your senior season is slipping away. T.J. Parker and Young shouldn’t be leading this team, not yet at least.

Winston Blake is in a terrible shooting slump. Tough. There are other ways to lead. Jason Burke has more pump fakes than points. So get back on defense and rebound. Aaron Jennings had three inches on Wisconsin’s tallest starter, but nabbed only two boards. Match-up problems? Doubtful.

With 12:30 left in the first half and NU trailing by three, Burke found Blake on a beautiful behind-the-back backdoor feed. With 17:42 remaining in the game, Jennings buried a 3-pointer to bring the Cats within five points.

The cure? Only in quick, ineffective doses.

Once NU’s seniors step up, the rest will follow. Until then, Wednesday night will be just a fairy tale.

Adam Rittenberg is a Medill senior. He can be reached at [email protected]