NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at Sunday night's loss by the Northwestern men's basketball team to Illinois at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
* Freshman forward Kale Abrahamson took the first 'Cat shot on Sunday night. It was a three from the right wing and it caught nothing but air. This was appropriate since it would come symbolize the type of evening they were about to endure at Welsh-Ryan.
* A month earlier, in Champaign, the 'Cats buried five of their first six three-point attempts, built a 15-point halftime lead and cruised to a win while going eight-of-15 from distance (53.3 pecent). "They're really hard to guard now," Illini coach John Groce would say Sunday after his team had cruised to a 21-point win of its own. "They do such a great job. They're so unselfish. They move. They cut as hard as anybody in the country. They screen. They've got great spacing. Obviously, they're really-well coached. We felt like they carved us up in Champaign. They did. So guys took a little bit of pride in wanting to defend a little bit better, and I thought we defended a little bit better today."
* In the final 6:32 of Sunday's game, the 'Cats went three-of-five (60 percent) on their threes. Before that, they went two-of-22 (9.1 percent). That is how much better the Illini defended here. "You've got to make shots. We weren't able to do that," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody would say both simply and accurately. "Their defense gets the credit."
And what adjustments did that defense make to so stymie the 'Cats?
"I don't want to give away anything. You never know. You can see these teams multiple times and I don't want to get too much into game planning," said Groce. "But obviously one of the things I will share with you is everyone knows their three-point production is 12th in the country coming into the game. If you let them get clean looks from the three, a lot of them, and they make them, it's on now. They missed some (open looks) tonight. I'm sure he (Carmody) feels that way. But I also thought we challenged them a little bit more, made them a little more difficult to get. That was one of the things."
* A month earlier, in Champaign, the Illini were a step slow as they moved to cover those handoffs that are so much a part of the 'Cat offense. That left the 'Cat shooter unmolested. But on Sunday that was not the case and so, almost always, their was a defender in the face of that shooter. As a result, said Carmody, "Our offense was bad the entire night. It didn't seem to have any flow to it. They guarded us in a similar fashion that they did down in Champaign. Switching everything, which a lot of teams do. But they did it very effectively and seemed to have a little more pep in their step. We couldn't get too much going."
"Sometimes people, when they think unselfishness, they immediately think almost exclusively of offense," picked up Groce. "But defensively right now we're in the right position more, we trust one another more, we cover for one another better. We understand we want five guys guarding the basketball, that it's not just about my man. We get that better."
* Here is how effective the Illini team defense was Sunday. One second less than four minutes would pass before the 'Cats got their first field goal, and that would be just their first drought of the night. They managed only one field goal in the last 8:52 of the first half and did not get their first in the second half until 6:34 had elapsed. They were outscored 29-6 in this stretch of 15:26, and that was not all. "It was more than shooting," explained Carmody. "It was just the whole flow I didn't think was great either. We weren't sure whether to shoot or not to shoot or how the offense was running. As well as we did against Ohio State, in a loss, following the scouting report, knowing what to do, I don't think we handled it well tonight."
"We were a little lackadaisical," guard Alex Marcotullio would admit minutes later. "It's not like we weren't playing hard. It was just, we didn't take care of the ball, we didn't follow our game plan, we didn't do things that we need to do to win basketball games."
What was that game plan and why wasn't it followed?
"We really needed to control the game with the way we play," he said. "I think at times we got into a little bit of an up-and-down game. They had double-digit transition baskets and that was one of our keys, to limit them in transition. They definitely get going and get more confidence when they start making shots and they're out in transition and getting easy looks and layups."
* The stats show, in fact, that the Illini got only 10 fast break points, which isn't many. But this is misleading and here is why. They also pushed the ball against the 'Cat defense, pushed it hard enough that the 'Cat defense often never got itself entirely set, and this created one-on-one situations that led to driving layups or fouls. "Coaches do a good job of letting us know in general what the other team is trying to do," guard Reggie Hearn would say when asked about that. "But they can't get down and guard a guy one-on-one. We got beat on a lot of plays like that tonight and that can't happen if we want to win."
* The bottom line, in the end, was this: Hearn went three-of-11 overall and 0-of-four on his threes; Tre Demps went three-of-11 overall and one-of-five on his threes; point Dave Sobolewski went 0-of-six overall, 0-of-five on his threes and had two turnovers with no assists; and the 'Cats, as a team, went 12-of-48 overall (25 percent) and five-of-27 on their threes (18.5 percent) while committing 14 turnovers with only nine assists. "I don't think he's worn out or anything," Carmody would say when asked of Sobolewski's struggles. "He has some real good games and some other games. It's like a lot of guys. If you start out well, you play well the rest of the game. If you're not starting out well, that'll get to you. You've just got to overcome it, and he will."
* But the final words here will go to Marcotullio, who said this: "We were a little out of rhythm sometimes. But the shots we got, we need to make. That's the bottom line. If we get open shots, we need to knock them down. That's how we're going to hang in games, that's how we're going to win games."