It went from bad to worse — bad being the expectation and worse being the reality.
Helpless on offense, and only slightly better on defense, Northwestern lost to No. 4 Wisconsin 76-49 on Friday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
It was the first loss of many in what figures to be a long, painful conference season for the Wildcats.
“At the end of the day, we lost big,” Chris Collins said. “That’s never going to be okay. We all have to be angry about it.”
For a while, you could recite NU’s scoring plays by heart: Dave Sobolewski three-pointer, Alex Olah baby hook, Alex Olah layup. Those seven points spanned the first thirteen minutes.
It was almost as difficult to keep track of Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes, whose 13 first-half points nearly matched the Wildcats’ miserable 14. At the intermission, Northwestern trailed by 26, with the outcome long decided.
Despite an energetic defensive start, NU watched its offensive woes persist. Collins’ team struggled to find open looks and failed to work the ball inside.
Sophomore center Alex Olah provided the lone positives. He scored on his first two post touches and finished with 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting.
“Certainly, Alex Olah’s play was a big plus for us,” Collins said. “I thought he really wanted the ball, played with passion and we needed some other guys to join him on the offensive end of the court.”
NU’s two best players – Jershon Cobb and Drew Crawford – combined to shoot just 6-for-23. Crawford disappeared against a more physical opponent, while Cobb looked uncomfortable in his first start since his return from a sprained ankle.
“They’re a good defensive team, packing it in the paint pretty well,” Crawford said. “At the same time, I just missed easy shots, shots that I needed to make.”
Wisconsin certainly looked the part of undefeated, picking apart NU’s many flaws. The Badgers were plus-11 on the glass and exposed the home team’s interior defense. They shot 62 percent from inside the three-point line, patiently demoralizing the Big Ten’s worst team.
NU doesn’t appear to be lacking any effort. Even after last week’s loss to DePaul, Chris Collins said there were players crying in the locker room. There are simply too many roster holes — one average player after another trying to compete in a difficult conference.
“We’re all upset,” Olah said. “Wisconsin was a good but the difference was too big. We just have to come back around, learn from our mistakes and keep going from there.”
With very few capable offensive threats (Collins admits as much), they’re easily guardable. With limited interior presence, they can’t defend — though there have been improvements. And without the roster to compete, it’s tough to evaluate new head coach Chris Collins.
“We’re trying everything,” Collins said. “You are who you are.”
Tomorrow, they’ll begin preparation for Michigan and another challenge that should be too much to overcome. Then rinse and repeat.
When Collins accepted the Northwestern coaching position, we guessed it would take time, probably years. This is what “time” looks like. It’s easier on the imagination, and much worse in person.