EVANSTON — Don't call it a hangover.
The instant response following Northwestern's 74-64 home loss to Maryland on Wednesday night would be to think that the Wildcats, fresh off a win at Wisconsin that's being described as the biggest in program history, suffered a letdown.
Chris Collins used the word fatigue to describe a few players. He talked about his team being a step slower. But it had nothing to do with the mindset, celebrating the win too much or taking a night off after a program-defining win, according to the head coach.
In other words, it wasn't a hangover.
"I really don't think it was a hangover," Collins said when presented with that word after Wednesday's game. "Sometimes as a coach you can feel your team's energy out on the floor. I thought our heads were in the right place. We were definitely ready to play the game, we prepared well for the game. I just felt like tonight we were a little bit slow."
Those of us who have unfortunately been through such an ordeal know that fatigue is a symptom of a hangover. The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.
But the fatigue Collins was describing might have been less about the results of games past and more about the way certain guys had to play in those games.
Basically, fatigue from not being able to lean on Scottie Lindsey.
The Cats' ailing leading scorer missed his fourth consecutive game Wednesday night, and the display from Northwestern was much like what occurred in the first two contests Lindsey missed, losses to Purdue and Illinois where the offense went missing and the team couldn't do a thing on one end of the floor. Taking away more than 15 points a game will obviously yield that result, and when the defense isn't in tip-top shape — as it was against Wisconsin — you get what happened at Purdue and in each of the last two home games against Illinois and Maryland: losses.
The first was lopsided, the second two less so, but each shared the same theme. Lacking Lindsey is a very big problem for Northwestern.
"A little more balance offensively and defensively," forward Vic Law said when asked what the Cats miss when Lindsey's not on the floor. "We're balanced on the floor offensively when you have Scott out there, not only for his scoring but he just opens up the floor so much more. Teams aren't able to just lock in on whoever their game plan is. Teams have to play our offense a lot more honestly, and when you do that, we're really good when our offense is just running and clicking. So when Scott's out there, he allows our offense to run a lot smoother. We don't have to play as much 1-on-1. It's a lot more crisp."
It's unknown when Lindsey will return. There wouldn't seem to be a need to rush him back for Saturday's game against Rutgers, a team at the bottom of the Big Ten standings that even a shorthanded Northwestern should be able to handle with ease. But the longer Lindsey remains out, the longer the Cats have to deal with the problem of not being able to score more points than their opponent, which is kind of a critical element in the game of basketball.
Wednesday night, the well dried up for Bryant McIntosh. The junior point guard had scored more than 20 points in each of the previous four games, but he was knocked off his roll early, picking up two quick fouls in the opening minutes of the game and then a third later in the first half. McIntosh finished with nine points on 3-for-13 shooting, the fourth straight game in which he's missed double-digit shots.
Law didn't have too much going, either, scoring 12 points on 4-for-12 shooting. And those offensive woes looked worse when combined with Law's challenges on the defensive end. He was tasked with guarding Maryland's star point guard, Melo Trimble, who exploded for a career-high 32 points.
If it wasn't for Isiah Brown, the freshman reserve who poured in 19 points, the final score would have looked a lot worse. It was Brown who sparked a 15-4 run in the second half that shrunk a 20-point lead down to single digits. He played great, but with McIntosh and Law gassed from 40 minutes apiece up in Madison and Lindsey sitting on the bench, it wasn't enough to carry the Cats to a second straight win over a ranked opponent.
"It's no excuses, but (Lindsey) averages 16 points a game. So when you're playing really potent offensive teams we've had to win with our defense. We're not capable right now of throwing up 75, 80 points. We just don't have enough firepower," Collins said. "We have to win games 65-60. And Maryland is very potent offensively, and they score the ball. We just couldn't match that.
"It was just one of those nights. We couldn't put it in the basket, and against a really good team, you're just not going to be able to get away with that."
We should remember, of course, that Maryland is very good and that Northwestern losing was perhaps a little predictable. When the Cats dropped their first two games without Lindsey — the loss to Purdue expected, the loss to Illinois not — it looked like a four-game losing streak was in the cards with the second half of those games coming against ranked foes in the Badgers and Terps. Northwestern surprised in Madison, recalibrating expectations for Wednesday night.
Having dropped three of four, there might be slight concern about the remainder of the regular-season schedule, wondering if these offensive struggles could lead to more unexpected losses like the one against Illinois. Northwestern's remaining games are: home against Rutgers, at Illinois, at Indiana, home against Michigan and home against Purdue.
But the more pressing panic has to do with March. The win over Wisconsin seemingly guaranteed the Cats would be going dancing for the first time ever. But will Northwestern simply be happy to be in the NCAA tournament? Or will there be hopes of a run?
The latter will require performances like the one from Sunday against Wisconsin. A performance like the one Wednesday against Maryland — and any team Northwestern faces in the Big Dance will be of the high caliber the Terps are — and the first-ever tournament appearance might be short lived.