Northwestern went 2-1 in the Wooden Legacy this weekend, but will fly back to Chicago leaving something to be desired.
Though Northwestern (5-1) played well for a couple of long stretches, the team failed to pick up a significant win for their NCAA Tournament resume, let alone a championship.
Their undoing came on Thanksgiving Day in a 78-59 loss to Fresno State (2-2), a team ranked 75th in the nation by kenpom.com (Northwestern is 47th in those same rankings). The loss delegated Northwestern to the consolation bracket and – at best – a 5th-place tournament finish. It also means the Cats will not play Miami, a team that would have been the best non-conference team on Northwestern’s schedule. Northwestern’s relatively weak non-conference schedule puts more pressure on Big Ten play in building a postseason resume, while exacerbating the effect of any non-conference loss.
The ‘Cats were outclassed by the Bulldogs on both ends on Thursday. Most notable was Northwestern’s performance from beyond the arc: The Wildcats shot 6-22 for a 27.3 percent mark, made worse by the Bulldogs’ 47.8 percent clip. Moreover, the ‘Cats amassed 15 turnovers, an area that head coach Chris Collins has noted as significant in beating good teams.
Defensively, Northwestern failed to slow Fresno State’s rhythm. Five Bulldogs scored double-digit points, including 17 from senior guard Braxton Huggins. There were more defensive miscommunications throughout the game than we are used to seeing from a Collins-coached team, leading to 50 percent shooting from the floor for Fresno State.
Vic Law scored 13 points with 4 rebounds and 5 assists in the loss.
To their credit, Northwestern made the most of the rest of the weekend en route to a 5-1 record. On Friday, the ‘Cats thrashed an inferior La Salle team, 91-74. In the most fast-paced game of the season so far, three Wildcats (Law, Ryan Taylor, and A.J. Turner) scored 20+ points as the latter two regained confidence and made some highlight reel plays.
Northwestern shot 48 percent from the floor and won the rebounding battle by a margin of 14 over La Salle (0-6). The win took Northwestern to the consolation bracket championship against Utah.
On Sunday, Northwestern downed Utah (3-3) by a score of 79-57. The Wildcats had lost 9 of their last 10 versus Pac-12 opponents, but Northwestern was able to end that streak and leave California with at least a Power 5 win. Northwestern played a complete game behind perfect shooting from Dererk Pardon (5-5, 15 points).
In the first half, the defense forced the Utes into committing 10 turnovers in the first 12 minutes. The Wildcats capitalized by jumping out to a 16-10 lead. Northwestern shot just 38 percent in the half, but managed to go into halftime on top of the defensive battle, 28-24. A highlight of the half was Pardon’s first career three-pointer.
The ‘Cats outscored the Utes 51-33 in the second half behind 63 percent shooting. Law led the way by going 5-7 and knocking down three treys. The knockout punch was a 7-0 Northwestern run resulting in a 16-point lead with 8:30 to go.
The road from here is not easy: Northwestern will face another Power 5 opponent in Georgia Tech on Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan (part of the B1G/ACC challenge) before beginning Big Ten play at Indiana on Saturday afternoon. While there were some encouraging signs this weekend, Northwestern needs to improve fast to keep winning games consistently.