The Wildcats’ season ended with an overtime loss in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center last week, ending a dismal 2018-19 season
by Tim Hackett
March 13, 2017. Northwestern Men’s Basketball prepared for a trip to Salt Lake City, reveling in the previous night’s announcement that the Wildcats would – finally! – be participating in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. The Cats emerged victorious over Vanderbilt in their first ever tourney game before falling to eventual national runners-up Gonzaga in the second round.
March 13, 2019. Northwestern Men’s Basketball retreated to the locker room at the United Center in Chicago, players and staff in tears, as the reality set in – following a 74-69 overtime loss in the first round of the 2019 Big Ten Tournament – the nightmare 2018-19 season was finally over. Two years after the greatest season in the history of Wildcat basketball, the Cats turned in one of the worst. Northwestern finishes with 13 wins overall and just four in conference play, both the lowest totals since 2012-13, Bill Carmody’s last season as Northwestern head coach.
Last week at the United Center, Carmody’s successor Chris Collins encapsulated the frustration that has followed his team all season long.
“Overall, the record isn’t where we wanted it to be. There is no mistaking any of that,” Collins said. “We’re going to get to work. We’ve got to get better. I’ve got to be better. We’ve all got to get better. We’ve got to get it back to where we know we can get it, and that’s something that I’m anxious to do once we can let the dust settle and rest a little bit.”
In more ways than one, Wednesday’s matchup in the Big Ten Tournament was a microcosm of the entire Northwestern season. The Wildcats, the 14-seed in the event, played a close game against their in-state rival Illinois in a contest where Northwestern settled for bad jump shots, missed threes, got one or two lucky breaks, went cold for long stretches of time and struggled to get consistent scoring from their bench players. And still, Northwestern forced the game into overtime and even held a lead in the extra session.
Leading scorer Vic Law was unavailable for the contest after he injured his leg in a gruesome collision with Purdue standout Carsen Edwards on Senior Day March 9. Without him, the Northwestern offense was similarly tough to watch in the first half Wednesday – the Cats shot just over 32 percent from the field, including a 3-of-16 clip (19 percent) from outside the arc. Even with fellow senior standout Dererk Pardon around to patrol the interior, Northwestern had no answer for Illinois freshman center Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who gashed the Cats for 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the first half alone. Still, Northwestern found itself only trailing 30-27 at the halftime break.
The Wildcat offense awoke after the interval. Pardon made an early shot and A.J. Turner found his scoring touch with back-to-back threes. Illinois’ freshman phenom Ayo Dosunmu struggled in his return to his home city of Chicago, but sophomore Trent Frazier the ever-present Bezhanishvili were there to pick up the slack as the teams traded blows in the second half.
With the clock showing less than a minute to play, Illinois thought it had found the game-winner as Andres Feliz completed a three-point play to put his team up two with 35 seconds left, but Turner drove back the other way, fouling out Bezhanishvili and sinking both of his free throws to level the score at 61 apiece.
Back underneath the other hoop, Feliz had a shot for the lead but his layup was blocked out of bounds by Anthony Gaines. Illinois maintained possession. With just over a second left on the clock, Feliz swam around three Northwestern defenders to receive Dosunmu’s inbounds pass, but his layup smacked off the backboard and out, sending the game to overtime.
Unfazed by the brush with defeat, Northwestern started overtime off strong with a corner three but Frazier and Dosunmu hit back-to-back long-ball daggers to put Illinois up five, and the Wildcats couldn’t recover
Bezhanishvili was asked postgame just when he knew his team would pull out the win, and the affable native of the Republic of Georgia answered with a trademark grin.
It was a trying season for Collins. His team’s offense frequently sputtered and finished dead last in the Big Ten in points per game and field goal percentage and third-to-last in three-point percentage, with a 13-19 record that was two spots below the next-closest team. All this from a team that showcased a trademark standout defense, one that held opponents to a three-point percentage of just over 29 percent, a mark that ranks among the 20 best in the entire country.
Northwestern followed up an impressive 73-66 home victory over tournament hopefuls Indiana on January 22 – a win that made Collins the fastest-ever Northwestern coach to record 100 wins in his tenure – with a 62-46 goose egg of a performance on the road against Wisconsin. The 46 points represented the lowest output by a Northwestern team in years, and that defeat sparked a stretch of ten straight before the Cats finally righted the ship on March 6 against an Ohio State team that was missing Kaleb Wesson, its best player.
Through that 10-game losing streak, and the 4-16 conference season, the recurring issue was Northwestern’s lack of offense. A possible prognosis for this persistent problem was the paucity of a true point guard – the team never really had anyone to play the position. The university revoked the scholarship of incoming freshman Jordan Lathon in the offseason. Northwestern hastily acquired a new first-year point guard in freshman Ryan Greer who he turned 19 in February and trusting him at the helm of a Big Ten offense was never going to be fair. Junior guard Jordan Ash only played in 10 games before suffering an injury.
All that meant that Northwestern had to convert existing players into point guards, forcing guys that had never played the position before into the role practically full-time. Northwestern auditioned Turner, who had run point sparingly during his time at Boston College but was mostly a shooting guard. Northwestern auditioned Gaines, a defense-first athletic combo guard. Northwestern auditioned Law, long known for his wing defense and jump-shot ability, not for his ball-handling. And Northwestern auditioned Greer, who looked capable at times but was clearly far too green to play the position full-time.
Questions about the point guard position abound, with few answers in view. Northwestern has another heralded guard recruit joining the mix next year, but asking him to man the controls immediately would be expecting quite a lot. Perhaps the team will be in the mix for a graduate transfer to fill the position. Regardless, Collins was adamant that something needs to change.
Collins was clear in his message: this season was a lost one, but that won’t be what defines the impact that Law, Pardon, and others had on the program Next year, Northwestern will have to replace its three leading scorers, but Pardon, perhaps the best overall big man Northwestern has ever had, said he wasn’t concerned about the future of the team.
“We were never satisfied,” Pardon said after the game Wednesday. “I mean, [there were] ample times we could have quit on this season, the way it was going, but we never did. We fought every day, every practice. So that’s something I’ll always admire about these guys and I’m not worried about these guys moving forward because I know they’re going to work so I’m just looking forward to see what they see they can do.”
Pardon and Law, Northwestern’s only two all-conference players, are graduating and won’t be around for next year. Neither will Ash, Aaron Falzon and Barret Benson, all upperclassmen who have announced their intent to transfer in the last week. If Northwestern wants March games to look more like they did in 2017 than they did in 2019, a lot of things are going to have to change.