By Adam Rossow
Before every Northwestern home basketball game, DJ Steve Aoki’s dance anthem, “Turbulence,” plays in the moments leading up to the opening tip. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the chorus’ opening line “We hit turbulence” is a perfect way to describe their last two weeks of play.
Northwestern was routed by No. 12 Michigan State 76-45 Thursday night in Evanston to drop its fourth consecutive game. The Wildcats trailed wire-to-wire against the Spartans, who made 16 3-pointers to Northwestern’s four, and more than 61 percent from beyond the arc.
“This was nothing to do with our preparation or effort,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. “One team shot the crap out of the ball and the other team didn’t.”
The Wildcats’ once promising NCAA tournament prospects are now on life support after the loss to the Spartans. In five games since defeating Minnesota on Jan. 9, Northwestern is shooting just 21 percent from beyond the arc and 37 percent overall, averaging 58 points per game during the stretch.
The Wildcats sit alone in 10th place in the Big Ten and need six or seven victories in their final nine contests to have a chance at earning the first tournament berth in the program’s history. Possible? Yes. Likely? No.
“We have nine more rounds left,” said Northwestern redshirt junior Sanjay Lumpkin. “We are going to fight every round and come to play beginning on Sunday.”
Against Michigan State, the third of four straight ranked opponents — the first such stretch since 1989-90 — the shooting struggles that hampered Northwestern (15-7, 3-6 Big Ten) throughout January continued against the Spartans.
The Wildcats missed their first five field goals to start the game, including three from beyond the arc, and found themselves in a seven-point hole before the packed house at Welsh-Ryan Arena got comfortable.
The Wildcats’ shooting got only marginally better for the remainder of the contest, as they bricked, clanked and air-balled their way to a season-low 20.7 percent from the field. Seniors Tre Demps and Alex Olah combined for just eight points on 2-of-20 shooting.
It didn’t help they were matched against the Big Ten’s best 3-point defense, but Collins said after the game he believed many of the Wildcats’ errant shots were open looks.
“We are having a very hard time making shots and it wears on you mentally,” Collins said. “We’ve lost our confidence.”
Michigan State (18-4, 5-4), on the other hand, seems to be hitting its stride after enduring a three-game losing streak earlier this month. Coming off their emotional win over Maryland on Saturday, the Spartans shot nearly 51 percent from the floor and converted a number of clutch baskets in the waning moments of the shot clock to continuously demoralize the Wildcats’ defense.
Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine finished with a game-high 19 point, along with seven assists and six rebounds. The senior star also teamed with rookie Matt McQuaid to drain 10 of the team’s 16 3-pointers. McQuaid finished with a career-high 17 off the bench.
“We played awfully well defensively,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who moved into second place for all-time victories (513) at a Big Ten school with the win. “Our defense was good tonight, but those guys not making shots played into our hands too.”
Photo at top: Northwestern’s Dererk Pardon, left, and Alex Olah warmup before the Wildcats’ 76-45 loss to No. 12 Michigan State. (Adam Rossow/MEDILL)