From the opening tip, Northwestern did not look right in Tuesday’s 68-61 loss to Illinois. While pressing on offense and alternating between rotating slowly and overcommitting on defense, the Wildcats looked like a team playing under pressure.
Most likely the cause was the absence of leading scorer Scottie Lindsey due to mononucleosis. Or maybe the NCAA Tournament pressure is finally sneaking into these Wildcats’ brains.
Bryant McIntosh missed his first eight shots, and although he finished with a game-high 21 points on 8-of-20 shooting, he also had six turnovers and never appeared in command of the game.
Here are McIntosh’s numbers from the final four minutes, starting when the game was tied: 0-of-2 FG, 4 turnovers, 1 assist, 2-of-2 FT.
With Lindsey out, the Wildcats needed McIntosh and sophomore forward Vic Law to step up. Law did the job with 16 points, 9 rebounds and 4 threes, but McIntosh handed the game away in the closing minutes.
“I thought our turnovers were really costly,” coach Chris Collins said. “We weren’t able to get a shot at the basket there for a couple of possessions.”
The result was the Wildcats’ second straight loss, dropping them to 18-6 overall, 7-4 in the Big Ten, and closer to the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Aside from a few well-executed moments in transition, Northwestern’s offense was in disarray.
Whether it was McIntosh barreling toward the basket and missing difficult floaters, Gavin Skelly jacking up threes that were lucky to graze the rim, or Isiah Brown trying to split a set defense, Northwestern played without patience.
Collins admitted as much.
“When you’re down a guy who can score like Scottie can, your margin for error offensively is much slimmer, so you’ve got to play smarter,” Collins said. “I just thought we took some rushed shots. I thought at times we were a little bit too eager. We put our heads down and got ourselves into tough spots.”
The defense was better, but not by much. Illinois scored 0.99 points per possession, its most in a road game since Jan. 7 at Indiana, which has the least efficient defense in Big Ten play.
The Illini shot 58.3% from the field in the second half and hit their final four shots to pull away. Lindsey’s 99.3 defensive rating was missed as much as his 15.4 points per game.
Lindsey’s return could come as soon as next Wednesday against Maryland, according to the Chicago Tribune. But mono can cause enough fatigue that Northwestern fans should not expect him at 100% for the foreseeable future, and possibly even the rest of the season.
And if Northwestern’s struggles are related to the pressure of this year’s success, well, the attention isn’t going anywhere. Win or lose, every Northwestern game the rest of the way will receive national attention.
“We’ll either do something special or we’ll be like every other Northwestern team,” McIntosh said Jan. 29 after beating Indiana.
Whatever caused Tuesday’s season-low performance, those problems will be present for the remainder of the season. If Northwestern cannot find a solution to remain composed to and play the quality basketball it played in its first 23 games, it will wind up like every other Northwestern team.