NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at Northwestern's 50-44 defeat at the hands of UIC on Saturday.
* There were the turnovers, 16 turnovers in all. "That's just too many. That's just too many (against an opponent) that's picking you up at the top of the key. There's no pressure, no real pressure," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody would say.
There were the Arctic field-goal shooting percentages, just 34.9 overall (15-of-43) and an even worse 25 on threes (four-of-16). "We were getting decent looks tonight," forward Drew Crawford would say. "But like coach said, some of the shots we normally hit as a team, they just weren't falling tonight. That's tough because we were playing good defense."
There were, finally, those continuous failures at the free throw line, those 10 misses on 20 attempts. "Free throws are just mental," point Dave Sobolewski would say. "Everyone's just got to get in the gym and start taking more and more."
There, in the proverbial nutshell, are the reasons the 'Cats fell by a half-dozen to UIC Saturday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. "Our shots weren't falling and if you have turnovers in the 'teens, it's not a good night," Sobolewski would also say with succinct accuracy.
* But nothing, of course, is really that simple, and so here let us recall a comment Carmody made after his team lost to Maryland last Tuesday evening. "We've been struggling a little bit to get what I call the pulse, the tempo of the game," he said that night when considering his team's offense. Then Saturday, on the same subject, he avowed, "I think they know it. They learn it, they have it. It's not that. The guys know what to do. But some of the passes are late, behind guys."
The 'Cat offense, in fact, is very much a work-in-progress right now. At its best, when it is functioning smoothly, it is filled with sharp cuts and hard screens and brisk ball movement, and calls up memories of a beautifully-choreographed dance. But recently, against both the Terps and the Flames, it more resembled (to mix metaphors) a powerful engine with a couple blown spark plugs. "We definitely need an injection of offense," even Carmody would admit on Saturday. "Maybe (freshman forward) Kale (Abrahamson) can do that. Maybe we can do some thing. They're smothering these two guys"--and here he nodded toward Crawford and Sobolewski, who were sitting next to him on the interview stage--"and we need somebody else out there to take away some of the heat. They're both competitors, and I think they both feel it's on their shoulders. Which I like, OK. But I've got to give them some help."
"Yeah, just because we're the guys with experience," Crawford would later say when asked if he did indeed feel it was on his shoulders. "We've been there before. We've been in a lot of tight games. So, yeah. That's how we want it. There's a lot of pressure on us as guys who have played a lot of minutes. Sometimes it's tough, but you have to grind through it and make plays when you need to."
And does he feel smothered, as Carmody noted?
"A little bit. UIC did a good job. They're a pretty tough and sound defensive team. So we've just got to get everyone going. Everyone's got to be on the same page."
* Last Tuesday, against the Terps, the 'Cats shot early (in the shot clock) and often (25 threes) from the outside. On Saturday, at the start, they worked inside-out, hoping to get some help from 7-foot freshman Alex Olah. "We wanted to see if we could get our center to be more aggressive. So we put a few things in there for him and threw it down to him, and I thought he was. He became a little more aggressive in there," Carmody would explain. "It's going to take time with Al, but I saw some pretty good things. He got a few rebounds, blocked a couple shots. We just have to get him to where he's really comfortable down there and aggressive because people are playing our guys pretty tight, these two guys especially, and there's room for somebody to do something down there and not just be a facilitator."
Olah would do a little something down there, grabbing six rebounds and hitting three of his seven shots for six points in his 28 minutes. But MIke Turner, his replacement, had two turnovers and one rebound and no points in his dozen minutes, and there was also this. The usually-reliable Jared Swopshire, the grad student transfer from Louisville, missed the only four shots he took and ended with a bagel; the 'Cat bench, so recently thought to be one of its strengths, chipped in only one field goal (a three by Abrahamson); and through this game's last 13:45, the only 'Cat to score a field goal was the indomitable Crawford.
* Still, despite all the turnovers and missed free throws and errant shots, the 'Cats were down just two with under 2:30 remaining. Now Crawford, who had carried them, missed a turnaround jumper from the left elbow and then Swopshire missed a three from the left wing. Underneath, in the scrum, 'Cat Reggie Hearn had prime position, and after he was fouled on the rebound by Flame Daniel Barnes, he made a pair to tie this one up at 44 at 2:09.
Sobolewski, whose will is palpable, now forced a Flame turnover, and if there was one interlude on which this game finally turned, here it came. It began with Crawford facing off against Marc Brown, his nemesis all day; with Crawford working him patiently and intelligently and purposefully; with Crawford finally rising for a 12-foot jump shot from along the right baseline that looked to be good before rimming out. But again, down low, there was Hearn with position, and here he grabbed the rebound and went back up clean for a layup and missed. "At the end there, Drew had one hanging on the rim, Reggie got a nice rebound, put it over. So we're playing with a little bad luck, I think," Carmody would later rue.
Now it was the Flames chance to grab the lead and they went for it with a three, which missed. But the player with position now was Josh Crittle, their center, who grabbed the rebound and made his layup, and after Olah missed a short hook to tie, this one was effectively over. For now the 'Cats started to foul and the Flames, who would end the day 14-of-15 from the line, made their free throws.
* Minutes later, when he walked into the interview room, Sobolewski was grim faced. The skin under his right eye was red, as if it had just absorbed a series of stiff jabs. Crawford, too, was tight-lipped, his own face a mask of disappointment. When he sat down he rolled his head, as if he were trying to wake himself from a bad nightmare.
Both would soon answer the questions asked of them. But their portraits spoke louder than any of their words.