Jan. 16, 2014
NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski offers up reaction following the Northwestern men's basketball team's game against No. 4 Michigan State Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Every game is a maelstrom of flying-and-flailing bodies, but within that swirling whole there are always snapshots to savor. Here is one from the `Cats Wednesday stare down with Michigan State, one that begins with Spartan guard Keith Appling picking a Drew Crawford pass. He pushes it ahead to Branden Dawson, who feeds it on to Denzel Valentine, who rises for a fastbreak layup, but then from somewhere `Cat Sanjay Lumpkin appears for a highlight-reel block.
There is another moment like it less than two minutes later, another Lumpkin block that thwarts another Spartan run out, and then--on the `Cat possession that follows--there is Lumpkin corralling Tre Demps' missed three and feeding Demps for a layup. Those were willful endeavors, accomplishments achieved through effort. But the most-memorable photo of this evening comes with Lumpkin standing flat-footed, just standing there as Spartan guard Gary Harris barrels toward like some Cannonball Express. "That play showed who he is," Chris Collins would later say.
"Gary Harris is coming at him 100-miles-an-hour and he takes a charge. Guy's going full speed and he's going to try and dunk the ball on him, and he just stands there. He puts his body on the line and takes a charge. He gets two tremendous blocks, and he's all over the boards, and at 6-5 he's playing the four spot for us because we're undersized. I mean, Sanjay's a warrior. He represents all the qualities I want our program to have."
The `Cats would finally fall by 14 to the No. 4 Spartans, but their evening at Wesh-Ryan was best represented by those snapshots of their freshman forward. Here they were up against the very team that represents toughness. Here they were taking on that team without point Dave Sobolewski, out again with lingering effects of a concussion. Here they were taking on a deep-and-experienced team with just eight scholarship players and a rotation pared down to six. But they never blinked, not once. They may have wilted late, finally worn down by the long odds (and bench) against them. But never did they blink.
"That was the best defense I've seen here in a long time," Spartan coach Tom Izzo would later say in the statement that opened his press conference. "They really checked. Give Chris credit. He's gotten guys to play hard and that's the number one thing that'll get him a lot of wins in his career. I just thought they played as hard as anybody we've played."
"They're going to win some games now," he would later add in answer to a question. "They remind me of some of my early teams. They just check you, and they're tough, and they don't take a lot. If I didn't have to coach against him, I'd applaud that. I like that."
There was again not much to like about the `Cat offense, which shot 28.3 percent and managed to put up only 40 points. Crawford, their leading scorer, dropped just one of his eight field goal attempts and finished with six. JerShon Cobb, his primary accomplice, scored all of his eight points in the first half and was just three-of-12 from the field. Demps did have a dozen, but he needed 13 shots to get them, and center Alex Olah was limited to five shots and four points by a trio of Spartan defenders.
"They're a great defensive team. I definitely have to give it to them," Crawford later said of his night. "They do a good job just compacting the lane. Every time you drive, they've got guys with quick hands reach down for the ball. That makes it tough getting into the lane. Those guys are quick."
"I thought they did a really good job denying him the ball," Collins would say of Olah's limited contribution. "They were rotating. When you have more guys, you can do that. Alex is our only big guy and he's going against three guys the whole night. And one of the things Michigan State does really well is what we call dig on the post. When you get it (the ball), Appling, Harris, they do a great job getting their hands in there."
"When you go from (Bill Carmody's) Princeton offense to any offense, it's like going from the wishbone to a pro set," Izzo said of the `Cats overall struggles. "Those poor kids. They're going to get better. You watch. They're going to get better each and every week. They're learning a system that is apples to oranges. That's not easy to do."
It is also not easy to be as tough as the Spartans or to slow the Spartan offense, which converts 40 percent of its three-point attempts and averages 82.2 points-per-game. But the `Cats held them to 54 points, harassed them into five-of-23 shooting from distance (21.7 percent), flustered them so much they launched a half-dozen air balls ("I don't think we had that many all season," Izzo would say), limited them to a minimal number of breakouts and a mere eight fast break points.
"That team tonight was tough. They played tough. They were a joy to watch," Izzo would say, and this is why the `Cats were down just five when a pair of Demps free throws made it 40-35 at 10:06. But Cobb was on his way to playing all 40 minutes; and Olah and Crawford were on their way to playing 39 minutes; and Demps was on his way to play 31 minutes, and now attrition took its toll. "A high intensity game like that, going against Michigan State, they were physical. Those guys played hard too," Cobb would later say. "We played hard. They played hard. I think it just wore us down a little bit."
"We've embraced being a blue-collar team, a scrappy team, a defensive team," said Collins. "But they're playing so hard what happens is, I thought we got worn down the last 10 minutes of the game. Their physicality, their athleticism wore into our legs. Alex was tired. Drew was tired. JerShon was tired. Having Dave out and not really having the depth, it's hard to get rest for those guys. But our guys battled. I told my team since the start of the year, really the only thing I ask of them is to just compete on every possession, to put their hearts on the floor and see what the results are and whatever they are we'll live with them.
"I couldn't be prouder of how our guys played tonight. Sometimes you can play that well and the other team's just a little bit better. I thought that was the case. They're just better than us right now."
The game is over now, and Collins and Izzo meet at halfcourt to shake hands, and for long moments Izzo holds onto Collins and talks. "I told Chris I was proud of him," he later says. "I love guys who do it the right way. He's learned from Mike (Krzyzewski, the Duke coach), one of the best. I watched The Journey (on the Big Ten Network) the other night, watched his dad (Doug), back to those Bulls days (when he was coaching them and Chris was a ball boy). It's a storybook thing, but it's being done the right way. I just told him that. I said, `Hey, I'm proud of you, man. You kicked our butt defensively. I thought you played harder than us. If you keep doing that, your offense is going to come.
`Get a foundation,' that's what I told him. That's what (former Indiana coach) Bobby Knight told me one time and things worked out for me."
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