Jan. 3, 2014
NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski offers up a look back at the Northwestern men's basketball team's loss to No. 4/5 Wisconsin in its Big Ten opener Thursday night.
This was Wisconsin, deep and talented, experienced and disciplined, undefeated and ranked No. 4. There was no way the `Cats could topple them while playing to the beat of a full-tilt boogie, they knew that, and so they opened with a plan any any smart team would employ when confronting a physically-superior foe. They opened by draining at least 20 seconds off the 35-second shot clock before looking at the basket.
"We wanted to keep the possessions down. We wanted to play a lower possession game and not just run up-and-down the floor with them," Chris Collins would say, explaining his `Cats initial strategy in their Big Ten opener Thursday at Welsh-Ryan against the Badgers. Here it worked well enough to get them a quick 3-2 lead on a three by Dave Sobolewski; worked well enough to get them a 5-4 lead on an Alex Olah jumper at 15:05; worked well enough to have them trailing by only five after another Olah jumper at 10:01. But now came the five minutes that effectively settled this game.
They began with a layup by Badger forward Nigel Hayes and a missed three by Drew Crawford, with a layup by Badger center Frank Kaminsky and a missed driving layup by Crawford, and by the time they ended the tally read like this. The Badgers had gone six-of-seven from the field and the `Cats, just one-of-seven. The Badgers had scored 14 points and the `Cats, a mere two. The Badgers had built their lead to 17 and the `Cats, a deep hole they would never escape.
"The thing that really hurt us, I thought, is we couldn't score," Collins would later say of this interlude. "So our defense, as time wore on in the first half, our defense continued to kind of disintegrate. It's tough as a player. You tell guys all the time not to let your offense effect your defense, but when you're having a hard time scoring, it does sometimes. I thought that was the case and if you do that against a really good team like Wisconsin you're going to pay for it. So give them credit. It was a good performance."
"I thought it was a very well-played (first) half," Badger coach Bo Ryan said of those 20 minutes his team exited up 26. "I thought defensively we played very well together. We read each other well. Then offensively I thought we shared the ball and got some high percentage shots."
The `Cats eventually fell by 27, which precludes the need for any deep-and-probing analysis. The Badgers, quite simply, were the better team and performed that way. Yet there are some outtakes to be viewed and one of them is this. The `Cats did hold Wisconsin star Kaminsky to just nine points, but that hardly slowed his team since it got 19 off the bench from the freshman Hayes. That bench, in fact, accounted for 32 of its 76 points while the `Cat bench mustered up just the four scored by Tre Demps.
Olah was a bright spot for them, playing spiritedly and scoring 23 while going 10-of-14 from the field. But the rest of the `Cats struggled, hitting a mere nine of their 41 shots. Crawford, their oft-resplendent star, was just three-of-11 and put up only 10. "They're a good defensive team. They pack it in the paint pretty well, so they did a pretty good job of taking away some driving lanes," he would later reflect. "But at the same time, I just missed easy shots, shots I need to make."
JerShon Cobb, his most-formidable sidekick, missed shots as well, ending just three-of-12 and scoring only seven. "For us to be successful," Collins would later say, "we need Crawford and Cobb to give us between 30 and 40 points. It just is what it is. Tonight they get 17. It's going to be hard for us to manufacture enough points to win games if we don't get production from those guys."
The `Cats, as a whole, shot just 34.5 percent overall, just 18.8 percent on their threes and manufactured just 49 points, their lowest total of the season. "It's still preparing to try not to give anything to the rim, try to prevent easy threes and make people take tough twos," Ryan would finally say of his stifling Badger defense. "Everybody talks about it. But doing it is not the easiest thing in the world."
The aesthetic side of Chris Collins appreciated what he witnessed Thursday evening. "You look at the way Wisconsin plays. They have experienced guys. They trust each other. They feed off one another. They share the ball. They're locked in defensively. You have to respect that," he would say, reflecting this part of his character. "They're well coached, they're well disciplined. They only had four turnovers. They take care of the ball. You have to be impressed with everything. You see a really good basketball team, you appreciate it. It doesn't mean it's fun when they're kicking your tail. But for someone who's a coach and has been around it, I really appreciate the way they play."
But that other side of him, that region where his competitive fire rages, did not enjoy the experience at all. "Losing like that never feels good," he would finally say, reflecting that part of his character. "I've lost like that, I've won like that. When you lose like that, it doesn't feel good. The moment that I don't feel like that, then I should get out of what I'm doing.
"Like I told the guys after the game, I'm not a moral victories guy. I haven't been and never will be. Were there some bright spots like Alex? Yeah. But at the end of the day we lost big and that's never going to be OK in my book. So we all have to be angry about it. You can't be sad. You have to be angry. There's a difference in (those) emotions. If you get sad, then you're in trouble. If you get angry, then you can respond.
"We've got to learn from it. We've got to play a lot better. I've got to do a better job with the guys of keeping the game manageable, not getting hit with those runs. The game was pretty much over at halftime. So I've got to do a better job maybe with more timeouts, whatever, to keep it at a more manageable score so we have a chance going into the second 20 minutes."
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