Pillote: Wildcats have nothing to gain by playing it safe


Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

Northwestern blew an easy victory late in its game against Maryland.

A jumper by freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh put the Wildcats up 11 with 3:46 to play. It should have been smooth sailing from there, but NU systematically squandered its lead down the stretch.

Most of it happened on the press break. Notoriously bad at escaping backcourt pressure last year, the Cats actually did a good job against the Terrapins thanks to the combination of McIntosh and senior guard Dave Sobolewski. But as soon as NU beat the press, it pulled up offensively in an effort to run time off the clock.

This isn’t inherently a bad strategy, but it is conservative and the Cats executed it poorly by holding onto the ball too long and being forced to take bad shots to beat an expiring shot clock. The more aggressive alternative, taking the easy baskets afforded by beating the press, probably would have been better, but that’s a view clearly swayed by hindsight.

Regardless, in the waning minutes of the Maryland contest, NU looked like a team that didn’t know how to protect a lead or play in a close game, a recurrent theme in Big Ten play.

Against Michigan State the Cats actually took a lead with 28 seconds to play but allowed the Spartans to tie it up on a pair of free throws after a defensive foul. Coach Chris Collins turned to junior guard Tre Demps — who actually becomes a worse shooter in crunch time — to take a long, contested jumper as time expired. Not surprisingly, it clanged off the rim.

It was deflating, but the team can’t expect every shot to go in. Still, NU proceeded to completely fall apart in overtime, scoring just 5 points to Michigan State’s 12.

The Cats’ efforts against Illinois and Ohio State were better, with the team simply unable to fully claw its way back from second-half deficits. For its final possession of the Michigan game NU actually turned to its best offensive player, McIntosh, to take a high-percentage runner that simply didn’t fall.

One missed shot is forgivable, especially a good one. The Cats’ total collapse of coordination against Maryland is not.

Yes, NU would have won if senior guard JerShon Cobb had boxed out or if the Terrapins’ Dez Wells hadn’t made an incredibly challenging shot. But the Cats had an opportunity to completely avoid such a game-deciding situation and didn’t.

Expectations were low coming into the season, and it’s easy to brush off the close losses by saying this year’s results don’t matter. But NU has to learn how to win tight games to become the successful team it has the potential to be.

Maybe it’s the inexperience of Collins or the six freshmen on the roster, but the Cats have yet to find that killer instinct for finishing in the final five minutes. Giving the ball to McIntosh instead of Demps was the first step, and NU staying aggressive is the next.

If results aren’t important, then the Cats should be playing like they have nothing to lose.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BobbyPillote