Even with it's shiny Top 25 ranking and home court advantage, #25 Northwestern was no match for #11 Michigan State on Saturday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Wildcats suffered a 91-70 defeat in a game that wasn't close for the majority of the second half.
The Wildcats led by three in a tight game with 4:48 in the first half before the Spartans turned up the intensity, rattled off a 14-3 run to the end the session, and never looked back. Michigan State (11-3) had four players score in double-figures with Kalin Lucas leading the way with 21 points and 4 assists.
Northwestern (10-3), on the other hand, had two players in double figures, but even that number is deceiving. While Alex Marcotullio had 16 points, most came in garbage time in the second half. John Shurna led the Wildcats with 29 points, but one heroic effort isn't enough to carry a team to victory in the Big Ten.
The problem for Northwestern was a lack of production from the post. With Michael Thompson held to 8 points on 2-8 shooting, even though he had 7 assists, the Wildcats needed production from the paint. The opportunities were there, but Luka Mirkovic and Kyle Rowley gave away valuable points.
The two centers combined to shoot 2-11 from the field and 2-6 from the free throw line. They had 6 points and 10 rebounds total between the two of them. They also had 3 turnovers and 4 fouls in 29 combined minutes. If you throw in Ivan Peljusic's 1 foul and 1 turnover in 5 minutes you have quite the trio.
"We have to find a way to put our centers in a better position to score some points," Bill Carmody said. "We have to come up with a way that they get in better position to give us some kind of offense down there."
Carmody's frustration with the center position was evident in the second half when at one point he played a lineup where Shurna was the biggest man on the court. Of course Michigan State tore that defense up and Northwestern had to resort to playing a center, but it didn't really matter at that point.
"We're just not getting enough productivity from [the centers] on either end," Carmody said.
Then again, the offense isn't the only thing that needs to improve. The Spartans continually exploited the 1-3-1 and Northwestern's press defense to the tune of 91 points. Lucas was the catalyst, but the Wildcats made his teammates Raymar Morgan (17 points, 5 boards, 5 assists), Durrell Summers (17 points, 7 boards) and Draymond Green (13 points, 5 boards, 3 assists in 25 minutes) look like all-conference performers.
"We weren't able to stop them. They kept getting the ball into the middle of the court and that can't happen," Carmody said. "I tried different guys there to keep the ball away from them, but they seemed to be there all the time."
"That's two games in a row now where we haven't stopped anybody," Carmody said.
Again the problem might be with the center position. Michigan State scored 38 points in the paint and 14 second chance points. It's not like there was a 7'1" player on the court like in the Illinois game either. 6'10" freshman Garrick Sherman started, but he played 5 minutes and was a non-factor. It was players like the 6'8" Morgan and 6'8" Delvon Roe that were giving Mirkovic and Rowley fits.
Even after these two losses, the Northwestern players are keeping things in perspective. Thompson still has faith in his teammate Mirkovic.
"Right now I think he's just in a slump mentally," Thompson said. "He just needs to keep shooting. As a team we're still talking to him, still supporting him. As players and a coaching staff we still believe in him. He's just going to continue to work hard in practice and I think he'll start doing a lot better soon."
To compete in the Big Ten, Northwestern needs to play bigger.