Men’s Basketball update: Predictable end to the season

Matt Baker

INDIANAPOLIS – After 17 defeats in the first 18 Big Ten games, Northwestern has losing down to a formula.

And, in Thursday’s 55-52 loss to Minnesota in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse, the Wildcats followed the script almost perfectly.

Step 1: Start out strong against a bigger, strong, more talented opponent. See: early leads at home against Indiana and Purdue teams ranked in the top 25.

NU exploded early against the Golden Gophers, seizing a 12-5 lead six minutes into the game. Sophomore forward Kevin Coble leading the way with 13 points, four rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block.

The Cats led by as many as 16 in the first half, and took a 13-point lead into the locker room behind 65 percent shooting.

Step 2: The opponent adjusts. See: defensive switches by the Hoosiers on Feb. 23 and by the Golden Gophers in Evanston on Feb. 6.

The Cats’ hot shooting disappeared in the second half Thursday as Minnesota switched to an airtight press and various zone defenses.

NU never recovered.

“In the first half they were running man-to-man, and we were executingour stuff very well,” Coble said. “At halftime, they made some adjustments and went to a couple different zones, and we didn’t adjust as well and sort of went away from what we were trying to do.

“It’s something we’ve struggled with throughout the year. It happened at Indiana. We got them to switch up defenses, and it was a matter of us not making the most of it. …It’s frustrating, continuing to be the same problem night in, night out.”

Step 3: Watch that lead disappear. See: the win over Michigan on Feb. 26. NU took an 11-point lead into the locker room but saw it dissipate, as the Cats barely hung on for the two-point victory.

Minnesota opened the second half with seven straight points in the first two minutes to destroy NU’s momentum. The Golden Gophers tied the game with 12:28 left thanks to a 21-8 run in which the Cats disappeared on offense and defense.

“This game was typical of a lot of our games this year,” coach Bill Carmody said. “Our last eight games, nine games, 10 games, we’ve had leads, but we couldn’t end up with a win for different reasons.

“Tonight just seemed like it sort of typified the whole season.”

Step 4: Get beat on the boards. Bad. See: Indiana’s 39-17 rebounding edge at Assembly Hall, Wisconsin’s 38-21 advantage last week or almost any other game. The Cats won the rebounding battle in only one conference game.

NU held the early advantage on the boards, outrebounding the Golden Gophers 11-7 in the first half. But Minnesota grabbed as many rebounds in the second half (22) as NU had the entire game.

The Golden Gophers’ eight offensive rebounds created second-chance opportunities NU lacked, and that proved key in the final moments.

Step 5: Lose it down the stretch. See: freshman guard Michael Thompson’s chance at a game-winner at home against Indiana or junior guard Craig Moore’s missed free throws to tie the game at home againstIowa.

NU deserves credit for hanging with Minnesota until the end. But when it counted most, they couldn’t get a good look at the basket.

In the final nine minutes, the Cats took only seven shots. They didn’t shoot any during one four-minute stretch.

And down by one with less than 20 seconds left, junior guard Sterling Williams dribbled into a trap and turned the ball over to seal the loss and end NU’s nightmare season.

“I think it’s like the icing on the cake almost for us,” Coble said. “It’s just been the same thing, night in, night out. This game at halftime, we thought maybe we’d broken through a little bit.

“It’s disappointing… It’s not how we wanted it to end the season, having to dwell on ‘almost.’ It seems like every night we can’t quite figure out what it is, and tonight was just the same deal.”

A three-point defeat against a beatable Minnesota team isn’t how anyone wanted to end the season.

But with how NU struggled through its 19 conference games, unable to overcome scoreless droughts, rebounding massacres and ever-changing defenses, could it have ended any other way?

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