Shortened bench leads to loss in hostile environment … or not (J. Warren Eligon column)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — My head was turned when I heard the thump, which had nothing to do with the Northwestern men’s basketball team’s second-half play — although it could have.

During the singing of the national anthem before the Wildcats’ game against Illinois on Saturday, a member of the color guard dropped his rifle some time between the words “Oh say” and “can you see.” Embarrassment would be an understatement. The guard quickly recovered his rifle, but only after everyone in the crowd of 16,618 already was clenching their teeth to hold back laughter.

It probably wasn’t the greatest moment in the young man’s life. But the key is he regained his composure, and the blunder was long forgotten by the time the game tipped off.

That’s more than can be said for NU, which made a rather loud flop of its own.

After the Cats kept pace in the first half — shooting 52.4 percent from the field and trailing by just three points against the Fighting Illini — they stumbled after the break (36.7 percent shooting), allowing Illinois to run away with a 66-56 victory.

It was as if, following the intermission, NU tried to emulate the half-time entertainment: the Jesse White Tumblers. But unlike the acrobatic youngsters — who soared and twirled through the air, landing on mats and springing back up to do it all over again — the Cats forgot to return to their feet.

It was eerily similar to last weekend’s game at Michigan State — coincidentally also a 66-56 NU loss — in which the Spartans simply whittled away the Cats in the second half to cruise to victory.

But even if NU wanted to, who’s to say it would’ve been able to recover from its fall at foul-smelling Assembly Hall on Saturday. Thing is, the Cats’ lineup was so thin, you can’t help but think coach Bill Carmody was tempted to send former players Tavaras Hardy and Jason Burke into the game. Both were watching from behind the NU bench.

NU’s Evan Seacat (still recovering from a concussion) and Josh Grier (flu) didn’t make the trip. And Vince Scott sat out because of a hurt ankle.

That left Carmody with an eight-man rotation, featuring just six scholarship players. Two of them were walk-ons — Michael Jenkins, who played three minutes, and Joe Kennedy, who played a minute. And one was center Ivan Tolic, who, in typical fashion, played the game’s first five minutes, sat for an eternity then logged another quiet four minutes in the second half.

NU’s Vedran Vukusic, Jitim Young, T.J. Parker, Mohamed Hachad and Davor Duvancic each played at least 34 minutes.

Illinois, on the other hand, used 12 players to wear down the Cats. Granted, three of them barely played a minute. But Illinois’ Nick Smith exemplified the luxury Illini coach Bruce Weber had in looking to his bench. The 7-foot-2 center came in as the sixth man, playing in spurts to burn the Cats with 14 points.

You can’t help but wonder, however, how much NU’s peril actually had to do with its lack of depth. The Cats don’t even know.

“Just because you’re thin doesn’t mean you have to not play as well in the second half,” Carmody said in the postgame press conference. “I don’t want to use it as an excuse because our guys should be able to play for 40 minutes. I’ve had good teams before — very good teams — (that) played seven guys and it’s not a problem.”

But just minutes later, when a reporter with dred locks, who apparently had a short attention span, asked him about his squad’s inept second-half shooting, the coach had a different response.

“I don’t know if you’ve been listening, we need a few more guys,” he told the pee-wee columnist. “I don’t know what to say. There’s no answer and I think we’re tired. I think we’re weary. That shows up defensively. It shows up in shooting.”

Maybe it’s just their machismo attitudes, but the NU players certainly weren’t going to admit fatigue lost them the game.

“When somebody gets hurt, you know you are going to play 35 to 40 minutes,” Vukusic said. “That’s what we expected.”

Hachad budged a little.

“(Fatigue) definitely affects us, but I really think we could have won,” he said.

In another hostile road environment (that Young described as being “like a party at The Keg”) NU didn’t win. And again there were no concrete answers for the Cats’ second-half slide.

But with NU’s final two regular season games at home, the depleted team can count on its fans for an added energy boost. And then, there won’t be any excuses for dropping the gun.

Sports editor J. Warren Eligon is a Medill senior. He can be reached at [email protected]