Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden Northwestern had a chance to prove once and for all that this is a different Wildcats team. This is the team that's going to go to the NCAA Tournament and this is the team that can win tough games, like playing at a Big East team's home arena. Unfortunately, when it was over, Bill Carmody must've been left wondering if everything he thought had changed had really stayed the same.
The 85-69 loss to St. John's last night in the finals of the MSG Holiday Festival isn't, in isolation, a problem. All it means is that the Wildcats' road to the tournament will be even tougher. Anyone who thought that 9-9 in the Big Ten would be enough now knows that 10-8 is the bare minimum conference record this team must finish with to reach the dance for the first time ever.
It's going to be a long, uphill climb to get there too. For the Wildcats still have some of the same problems they've had in seasons past. Ones which have doomed them in Big Ten play.
The offense will be fine. It's always fine. Even against a tough, physical St. John's, and with Michael Thompson in foul trouble in the first half, the Wildcats still managed to score 69 points in 68 possessions. Northwestern slid just one spot, from 10th to 11th, in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings after the loss. There's no way a team that has offensive talent like John Shurna, Thompson and Drew Crawford can be held down for an extended period of time.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the defense still needs a lot of work. For as Northwestern was scoring 69 points, it also allowed 85 points in those same 68 possessions. That's 1.25 points per possession, and you don't need me to tell you that's not good.
Last season in Big Ten play Northwestern allowed 1.14 points per possession, which was the worst in the conference. This game against St. John's did little to alleviate the fears that those problems might rear their ugly head again.
"We have been struggling with our defense pretty much the whole year," Carmody said. "When we play the 1-3-1 it is very effective for us, but we have known all along that we cannot play it for 35 minutes. We have been really working on our matchups. Like a 2-3 match-up, but it has not been effective. I would not question the effort. I would give St. John's credit and know that we have to go to work and figure out what we have to do defensively, so that we can stop some of these teams."
Stopping St. John's was the problem. In the first half the Red Storm shot 5-12 from three-point range, which kept them in the game. In the second, St. John's went 16-20 from the floor and only attempted three three-point shots. The Red Storm continually pounded the ball inside against Luka Mirkovic. Justin Burrell had 15 second half points, on 5-5 shooting and some free throws, as he just pounded the Wildcats in the paint.
As has been the case in a number of games this season, neither Davide Curletti nor Mirkovic gave the Wildcats a consistent presence down low. Facing their strongest opponents of the season, both wilted on the offensive end. Curletti was 0-2 with 0 rebounds and one point in seven minutes and Mirkovic wasn't much better, as he went 1-6 with 11 boards, two points and two turnovers in 32 minutes.
Another game against an overmatched mid-major at Welsh-Ryan Arena, like Thursday's game against Mount St. Mary's, isn't really going to tell us if there have been any steps towards a solution. In fact, even more so than the chance to get "good" wins in the non-conference, the schedule also enabled Northwestern to mask its flaws for eight straight games.
Of course Carmody, as you can see from the quote above and his reaction last night, still has known this all along. Still, it would've been nice to have another dress rehearsal before next Friday at Purdue. Unfortunately, that's what we're left with, lots of questions until New Year's Eve.