EVANSTON — Northwestern deserves a heck of a lot of credit for the best start to a season in program history.
But in a season that has so far provided few true challenges for the Wildcats, the rare tests that have come against marquee opponents and under bright lights have not gone well.
A non-conference loss to a title-contending North Carolina team wasn’t surprising. So maybe Saturday night’s loss to a title-contending Maryland team shouldn’t have been either. But the Cats didn’t look good, forced into an exorbitant amount of turnovers and an unusual amount of misses from 3-point range in an ugly first half that saw them score just 20 points and trail by that same amount at halftime.
Northwestern played better in the second half, but it didn’t make much difference with Maryland in possession of such a big lead, the Terps winning by a score of 72-59.
If this was one of the Cats’ big tests, consider it failed.
The mix of playing a terrific Maryland team and a home-court atmosphere that befitted two one-loss opponents — with Northwestern fans roaring late into the second half at the mere sight of a deficit shrinking to 14 or 15 — had the Cats flustered, according to their head coach.
“To be quite frank, we haven’t played in front of this kind of crowd,” head coach Chris Collins said. “We just haven’t, and that’s something we’ve got to get used to. We’re a good team, and I hope people are going to come out, our guys deserve it, they’re a fun team to watch and they should come out. But I just thought the excitement, a good Maryland team, they knew how good Maryland was, I thought we were just sped up a little bit.”
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With so many wins in the bank already, the question surrounding the Cats went from whether they could make the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance to whether they could make some noise in a weird Big Ten. One of just four conference teams to enter league play with one loss or fewer, why couldn’t the Cats compete with disappointing teams like Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana or Michigan, teams that suffered far more losses during their respective non-conference schedules?
But the question of whether the Cats can run with the conference’s big dogs was answered Saturday, and the answer appears to be that they cannot.
Northwestern shot worse than 40 percent on the night, going just 2-for-20 from 3-point range. Turnovers and missed shots piled up in a hurry, and with big man Alex Olah still sidelined with an injury, there wasn’t much the Cats could do but keep casting up shots that didn’t go in. Defensively, there was no answer for an uber-talented Maryland team that kept pouring in one 3-point dagger after another, with Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon combining for 40 points.
That’s not to say, of course, that Northwestern’s 13-1 start was a complete mirage. Maryland is one of the country’s finest teams, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Terps to have this kind of performance plenty more times before season’s end.
“They’re real good, and they have a chance to win the whole thing. They’re that good,” Collins said. “That’s why they’re ranked in the top five. They have all the components: They have great guards, size, they have good wing players and they’re very well coached. So when you have those things — and they’re a veteran team. They’re playing one freshman, and he’s a monster. They have all the components to be great.”
It just shows that so much about the Cats remains unknown because we haven’t seen them in the proper situations to make an appropriate evaluation. Yes, the win at Nebraska was impressive, a comeback and a breakout performance by freshman big man Dererk Pardon. But the Huskers are no tournament contender. The Cats’ lone games against really good teams have been against two of the best teams in college basketball, and both ended in defeat.
Collins said his team will use the Maryland loss in the same way it used the North Carolina loss: to get better. And he even pointed out how a loss like this to this caliber of opponent can prove useful.
“A lot of times when you play really good teams, a thing that’s good is you get exposed in your weaknesses,” Collins said. “I thought they exposed us a little bit with some of the things we’ve got to get better at, and I’m looking forward to watching the film and showing the guys and using this to get better.
“Just like when we played North Carolina. We didn’t win that game either, but we got better form that game. And I hope this can be a learning experience for us, as well.”
Whether this remains an outlier against a high-quality opponent or a template for the remainder of the season is anyone’s guess. Northwestern’s mysteries won’t be unlocked until it starts playing more teams its own size because so far it’s been mainly weak competition plus two of the nation’s best.
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Maryland might have shown Northwestern that it isn’t yet ready to run with the conference’s elite teams, but Collins is right in saying that this is just one game on a schedule that still has a long way to go.
“Guys are disappointed. Never fun to lose. But we’ve got to move forward,” Collins said. “Like I told the guys, somebody may prove me wrong, but I don’t see anybody going 18-0 in our league. The way I see it, we’ve got 18 opportunities. We had one tonight, and we got beat by a really good team. They beat us, they outplayed us, they deserved to win.
“You’ve got to play every game as it counts. Let’s not overreact on one game, just like we didn’t overreact when we beat Nebraska at Nebraska. You win a game, you lose a game, you get back to the drawing board, you’ve got to put a gameplay together for the next team and you try to do your best to win the next game.”