NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at the Northwestern men's basketball team's 77-57 loss to Maryland on Tuesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Let's delve in analogy to start and think of Maryland, which visited Welsh-Ryan on Tuesday night, as the heavy hitter, that boxer who can reach back and load up and deliver that blow that separates his opponent from his senses. The 'Cats, in contrast, should be viewed as that clever will-o-the-wisp, the slick tactician with the style and the guile and the means of spinning that heavy hitter, of frustrating that heavy hitter, of cutting up that heavy hitter, of robbing that heavy hitter of his legs and finally leaving him gasping for air.
"We knew coming in they were going to be big. We knew they were bigger than us. That was a focus of ours," 'Cat guard Reggie Hearn would say, and that was not all. The Terps also led the ACC in rebounding margin (+15.2) and blocked shots (5.8 pg) and featured Alex Len, a 7-foot-1 center from the Ukraine who himself was averaging 15.6 points and 8.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.
"But I thought if we ran through our stuff, we'd get some easy baskets," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody would say. "I thought if we made them guard us for extended periods on the clock--not that we were going to slow it down or anything--but make them guard us. They had some guys I thought we could take advantage of with some movement, and I don't feel we did that. I just thought we were a little too quick on the trigger."
So the 'Cats, to wrap of this allegorical foray, chose to punch it out with the heavy hitter, which is always a mistake for a will-o-the-wisp dependent on wiles. That was emphatically proven when they fell to the Terps by 20.
Stats never tell the whole story. But they can provide a broad outline, and so let us consider a few. The Terps corralled a dozen offensive rebounds to the 'Cats four, the Terps collected 47 total rebounds to the 'Cats 19, the Terps finished with a dozen second-chance points to the 'Cats seven. "It all goes back to rebounding and it doesn't all fall on the bigs. It falls on the guards just as much," point Dave Sobolewski would later say. "The guards have to stick their nose in there and see if they can pull out some long rebounds or rebounds that hit the floor. It was just a horrible effort on the boards by the whole squad."
Their inside dominance is even more pronounced when parsing just how the Terps put up their 77 points. Fourteen of them came at the line, 15 of them came on three-point shots and a full 44 of them came down low, in the paint. Add those numbers up and you see they had just two other field goals, field goals that came on mid-range jumpers.
Then there was the 'Cats own offense, which is so dependent on that mantra to make shots. Here they did not, finishing just 34 percent overall (18 of 53) and 24 percent on three-point attempts (six-of-25). "We didn't take advantage of our speed and make them work on the defensive end," Hearn would say, echoing his coach. "If those shots go in, it's a different story. But they didn't, so it probably would have been better if we'd run our offense more and make them work on the defensive end."
"We're at our best when we're moving from one thing to the next, and our offense is moving, and we're cutting hard," picked up Sobolewski. "I felt that in the middle part of the game we got a little stagnant. We weren't cutting as hard as we should have been, and that's when it all went downhill."
"I just thought we were shooting the ball too quickly," Carmody said once again. "We tried to address that a few times, but it didn't really take. When you have a pretty decent shooting team and you're open, you feel pretty good about that. But they just weren't going down."
It was an especially-painful evening for the senior forward Drew Crawford, the 'Cat leader who finished with only 10 points while going four-of-14 overall and just one-of-five on his threes. He was not made available afterward in the interview room. But when asked if his star might be struggling to live up to his billing as the 'Cats man, Carmody said, "There might be something to that. He's definitely pressing. He's a good player. He'll break out of it. But right now he's definitely pressing."
Still, despite all of that, the 'Cats were down only two when the second half opened, and when Crawford drove the right baseline for a layup just 15 seconds into it, this one was tied at 28. But now their defense, which has been their calling card this season, buckled as the Terps attacked it down low. They got a layup and then, after a Crawford miss, another layup. Now came an offensive rebound by Jared Swopshire and one more Terp layup, a Sobolewski three and a Terp dunk.
Here the pattern had been set and, when the first TV time out came at 14:21, this was the result. The Terps had scored on nine straight possessions, and every one of their baskets had come on a dunk or a layup, and like that their two-point halftime lead was up to 13. The 'Cats tried to slow them here, tried to do that by switching to their 1-3-1 zone out of the time out, but in the next five minutes the Terps shot them out of it with the work of Logan Aronhalt, who drained three threes over that stretch.
After the last of them, at 9:44, the Terps were up 17, and never again would the 'Cats get closer than 16. "Give them credit," Carmody later said. "They came in here, pretty much an even game the first half, then they really stuck it to us in the second half."
It is still November and this was just the seventh game on the 'Cat schedule. But later, in the interview room, Sobolewski was asked if it had been one of those proverbial statement games, one of those games that allows his team to get a measure of itself. "No it wasn't," he quickly said, bringing a measure of reality to the moment. "It was a November game against an ACC team. It's not the end of the season. We've got a lot of work to do, for sure. We're not going to stop working. If anything, this will make us hungrier to improve everyday in practice. So. It was nothing more than a loss in November."