"It seems like this has happened before," said head coach Bill Carmody after his team's 74-65 loss Butler (7-2) Saturday night at Welsh-Ryan.
While Carmody was referencing how the lack of production from forwards Drew Crawford (6 points, 1-8 shooting) and Jared Swopshire (three points on 4 free throws, 0-6 shooting) puts overbearing pressure on his team, his quote speaks for the game at large, too.
The 'Cats came into Saturday's match-up with the Bulldogs on the heels of a big (and much-needed) win at Baylor Tuesday, but were out-muscled and out-hustled by Butler. Despite the best efforts of Dave Sobolewski, who scored 21 points before fouling out just less than 15 minutes into the second half, Butler held the 'Cats to a dismal 32.7 shooting percentage and made up for 25 team fouls with 18 points from behind the arc.
Like Carmody said, the problems that troubled the 'Cats against Butler were nothing they haven't dealt with before.
Northwestern won the opening tip-off, but intially had trouble getting into an offensive groove as Butler struggled to hit the open shots the 'Cats gave them. After a series of missed jumpers and turnovers from both teams, Butler's Rotnei Clarke (13 points) hit a corner three to break the intital stalemate 1:10 into the game.
The Bulldogs kept the 'Cats to a 37.5 shooting percentage in the first half, but 13 fouls allowed Northwestern to score 12 points on free throws alone. While Crawford was forced to sit out half of the first period in foul trouble and Swopshire and Reggie Hearn (13 points, 3-10 shooting) combined for only seven points, Sobolewski scored 14 points to compensate.
Even so, 15 points from 3-pointers coupled with aggressive defense forced 7 NU turnovers and helped Butler maintain a 34-31 lead going into the second half.
However, Carmody was quick to attribute his team's ball-handeling trouble to sloppiness.
"I just thought we were careless," he said after the game. "There's no need to have turnovers against them. They're not pressing you. I mean it's a good solid defense and all, but I just thought we were careless."
Northwestern was able to hang around with Butler during the first half, but things began to unravel for the 'Cats in the second.
Butler out-rebounded Northwestern 23-16 in the second half thanks in part to Andrew Smith, who scored 24 points and pulldown 10 boards in the game. The Bulldogs scored 20 points from the paint after halftime, six off of turnovers, and four points off the fast break.
"Smith dominated," said Carmody after the game, "a good lesson for our two freshman centers [Alex Olah and Mike Turner], because he out-strengthed [sic] and out-hustled them, knock them around a little bit, and they weren't up for the challenge yet."
Sobolewski kept Northwestern afloat with seven points in the half, but when he fouled out with 5:12 left to play with the score standing at 56-48 for Butler, the Bulldogs were able to stave off Northwestern until the final horn sounded.
What we saw
Another (slightly different) tale of two halves
Northwestern has had trouble maintaining a consistent level of play over the course of a game. On Saturday, the 'Cats failed to keep up with the Bulldogs' physicality for a full 40 minutes.
Hearn said after the game he and his teammates knew what to expect, but just weren't able to execute at the level they could or needed to beat Butler.
"We can play with teams like that," he said, "but they definitely [out-played us physically] in the second half, especially on the boards. They got way too many offensive boards and that's something we'll address as a team."
The sheer necessity of a productive Crawford and Swopshire
Eleven points from Crawford or Swopshire alone won't cut it against the best of the Big Ten. But the nine points they scored combined Saturday wasn't nearly enough to supplement Sobolewski's career day.
Sobolewski said he wasn't concerned about Crawford returning to usual form, but stressed the importance he and his teammates stepping up whenever anyone has an off night.
"Obviously Drew's a huge part of our team," he said, "and he's a huge part of what we do day in and day out, but we have to find a way to win when he's not playing his best. Everybody goes through ups and downs in a season and we just have to find a way to win whenever anybody on our team doesn't have one of their best nights."
Carmody denied any notion that Crawford is putting pressure on himself, citing a streaky scoring record. He did say he and his staff will need to address how to get him and Swopshire running effectivley again.
What comes next
After finals are over, Northwestern will take on Texas State on Dec. 17th at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Until, Carmody and his staff will try figure out how to get Crawford and Swopshire back into scoring mode.
"We've got exams now so the guys will be off for about four days," said Carmody, "and it's tough for when we lose to go into examinations, but I hope we can get going by Friday night and we'll look at this. The staff has to figure out somehow to get our two senior guys into our offense."