Men’s Basketball: Wildcats playing with nothing to lose

Danny Daly

For three-and-a-half games, the Wildcats were one of the worst defensive teams in the country. Northwestern gave up more than 70 points to three straight opponents, lost to two teams with losing records and allowed Wisconsin to shoot 75 percent from the field in the first half Sunday.

Then something clicked for the Cats.

“In the second half, we were more aggressive,” coach Bill Carmody said. “Maybe our backs were to the wall or something like that.”

Whatever the reason, NU snapped out of its week-and-a-half-long funk, rallying from a 14-point halftime deficit to crawl within one. The Badgers made only 26 percent of their shots after intermission and struggled against the Cats’ pressure.

Ultimately, NU couldn’t overtake Wisconsin, missing a couple of close looks late and losing 70-63 after being forced to foul. But the Cats regained the sense of urgency they played with earlier this year, and the result reminded them of their capabilities.

“We felt that we didn’t have anything to lose,” sophomore center Luka Mirkovic said. “People tended to start doubting us when we lost at Iowa, and especially against Penn State. “We know that we can compete against every single team in the league. That (comeback) kind of shows us we can do this.”

Now Mirkovic and his teammates have a second chance to knock off Iowa and Penn State after the crippling losses earlier this month, beginning with the Hawkeyes’ trip to Evanston tonight. Before the game at Iowa, which Carmody called “the start of this malaise,” NU seemed poised to make its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance-as long as it beat its lesser opponents.

That’s when the Cats’ defense collapsed. From the 78-65 loss in Iowa City, Iowa, through the first half of the Wisconsin game, NU let up an average of 1.23 points per possession.To put that number in perspective, the least-efficient defensive team in a major conference (a tie between Providence and Rutgers) has allowed 1.14 points per possession against league foes. Plus Iowa and Penn State are two of the worst offensive squads in the Big Ten, and their output against NU was their third-highest of the season.

“I don’t think we’ve been coming out with that same aggression,” senior guard Jeremy Nash said. “We’ve been laid-back, waiting to see how the game is going to play out, and that has hurt us.”

The Hawkeyes and the Nittany Lions exposed the Cats’ 1-3-1 defense in different ways. Whereas Iowa’s outside shooting put NU behind for good, Penn State passed the ball into the post with regularity and took advantage of the mismatch with junior point guard Michael Thompson on the baseline.

Neither strategy was new to the Cats, so fixing those problems is a matter of execution rather than a problem with the scheme.

“We’ve looked at the tape and seen what they’ve done,” Carmody said. “I don’t think they did any unusual things, but they were prepared and they executed. They weren’t indecisive, and we have to get them to the point where they’re uncomfortable. Iowa and Penn State got the shots they wanted.”

The recent defeats have all but ended NU’s chance for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, meaning it has to win the Big Ten Tournament to make the field of 65. But the Cats might benefit with less postseason pressure.

“The skeleton’s not on our back now,” Nash said. “Guys aren’t like, ‘OK, we’ve got to win this to make the NCAA Tournament.’ Now we can just go out and play and let our fate take us where it’s going to take us.”[email protected]