Northwestern's offense is missing in action, and not even the return of Scottie Lindsey is producing any points for the Wildcats right now.
Seemingly on the verge of making the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history, Northwestern can't seem to find the bottom of the basket, a problem that was glaringly exposed by an opportunistic Illinois team Tuesday night in Champaign.
Good defense by the Illini and atrocious offense by the Cats meant John Groce's team completed a sweep of the regular-season series between the in-state rivals with a 66-50 blowout of a decision at the State Farm Center.
Give Illinois plenty of credit for its defensive work, but it was hard to watch a Northwestern offense that has rarely seemed in sync since Lindsey began his four-game absence back on Feb. 1. He returned over the weekend against Rutgers and played Tuesday night against Illinois, but the Cats' leading scorer hasn't done much in his two games back. He scored just two points on 1-for-11 shooting Tuesday.
But Lindsey's personal woes were just the tip of the iceberg for Northwestern. The 50-point output was the team's lowest of the season as it shot 32.1 percent from the field, a number dragged down by a horrendous second half that saw the Cats shoot 18.5 percent (5-for-27 from the field), muster just 18 points and at one point go nearly 10 minutes without a made basket. Northwestern hit just once, a Nathan Taphorn 3 with a little more than a minute to play, over the game's final 10 minutes. The Cats also turned the ball over 11 times, including eight giveaways in the first half that led to 13 points for the Illini. Northwestern was just 4-for-18 from 3-point range on the night.
Despite all those problems, it took Illinois an awful long time to pull away. The Illini didn't shoot too well, either: 40 percent on the game and 37 percent in the second half. They owned just a one-point lead at halftime and joined the Cats in offensive ineptitude for much of the evening. But when Northwestern ran completely out of gas — Bryant McIntosh's bucket to bring the Cats within three with 10 and a half minutes left was the last real moment of danger for the Illini — Illinois was finally able to create some separation. Sporadic baskets and free throws slowly built the lead, which quietly reached double figures as Northwestern remained silent, before Malcolm Hill's 3-pointer with three minutes left served as the dagger to extend the gap to 16.
Hill finished with a game-high 18 points, 13 of which came after halftime. Leron Black was the other Illinois player in double figures with 11.
McIntosh scored a team-high 16 points for Northwestern, though he was an inefficient 6-for-17 from the field. Still it was a better result than the majority of his teammates. Lindsey's rough night teamed with Vic Law's three-point, 0-for-4 performance, and the two guys not named McIntosh that the Cats rely on to produce combined for five points on 1-for-15 shooting. Isiah Brown was 4-for-14 for nine points, and Gavin Skelly joined McIntosh in double figures with 11 points, six coming on a pair of made 3-pointers.
It's tough to expect too much from Lindsey just in his second game back from a mono-induced absence that head coach Chris Collins described as three weeks without exercise. But it's clear that the offensive doldrums for the Cats are not going away. This performance was by far the team's worst of the season, though it wasn't too dissimilar from what happened over the course of the five games that preceded it. Low shooting numbers and struggles from anyone not named McIntosh have now resulted in four losses in Northwestern's last six games. It's not at all good for a team that while seemingly a lock for an NCAA tournament appearance is in danger of stumbling its way to the Big Dance.
Meanwhile, as the speculation continues that John Groce might be in a position where he's fighting for his job, the win was huge for the Illini. Two weeks ago, the win at Northwestern was Illinois' best of the season, and now this win made two over a team flirting with a spot in the top-25 rankings and seemingly destined to be included in the NCAA tournament field. Illinois is still just 16-12 overall and 6-9 in Big Ten play, and there's no glory in that as the Illini appear on track to play in one of the two Wednesday-night games in the Big Ten Tournament. But with Groce's seat as hot as any coach's in the conference, any success is positive, and his team now has back-to-back league wins for the first time since 2015.
Just three games remain for both squads, and obviously given their positions in the standings, they loom far larger for Northwestern. The Cats travel to play Indiana and have home games against Michigan and Purdue to end the regular-season schedule. Illinois travels to Nebraska, plays host to Michigan State and travels to Rutgers to wrap the regular season. The verdict might be in on these seasons in the big picture — the best campaign Northwestern has ever had and a continued tournament drought for Illinois — but these last three games could dramatically alter the future of these programs.