Positives Outweigh Results in CBEHOF Classic

The Northwestern Wildcats wrapped up the CBE Hall of Fame Class Tuesday night, finishing 1-1 and heading back home with a 4-1 record overall.

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In their first match the Wildcats were pitted up against North Carolina, a team ranked #1 heading into the season, and a program head coach Chris Collins is very familiar with from his years at Duke. Northwestern struggled early, falling behind 18-8, but fought their way back even taking the lead at one point before the Tar Hells finished the half with a 14-1 run to take a 43-36 lead into halftime. Tre Demps came out of the break hot, scoring 18 of his 21 points in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Justin Jackson’s 21 points and 13 rebounds, as North Carolina’s 20-5 run was too much for Northwestern to handle. Bryant McIntosh struggled from the field, shooting 3-15, but had nine assists as the Wildcats fought to the very end, but it wouldn’t be enough as they would drop game one 80-69.

In game two, the Wildcats looked to bounce back against the struggling Missouri Tigers. Coming off of his poor shooting performance the night before, McIntosh scored Northwestern’s first 11 points as Northwestern lead by as many as 20 in the first half. With McIntosh dealing with foul trouble, he fouled out with 4:26 left, Northwestern had difficulty finding much rhythm on offense as the Tigers fought their way back and cut the lead to six. Some important defensive stops and clutch free throws at the end of the game by Sanjay Lumpkin and Alex Olah helped Northwestern squeak by with a 67-62 victory.

These were important games for a Northwestern program looking to make big strides forward this year. While they did lose to North Carolina, it should be noted that they hung with them for most of the game despite an absolutely awful shooting night from McIntosh. Coach Collins pointed to these games as early tests similar to what they would face in Big Ten play, and Northwestern proved that they have what it takes to play with any team in college basketball.

McIntosh and Demps and …?

 The scouting report on Northwestern is out and it is clear as day – stop McIntosh and Demps, stop Northwestern. The Wildcats’ talented backcourt tandem has carried them through most of the season so far, but one thing became glaringly clear in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic. If you can double team those two players and force one of the other three players to beat you, Northwestern’s offense stalls. They will need a third scorer, a guy who can hit open shots when the ball swings around their way, in order to counter this tactic.

After strong showings in his first two games, freshman Aaron Falzon has really struggled. He has shot a combined 3-18 over his last three games. Scottie Lindsey shot the ball well against North Carolina, but is only shooting 40% from the field on the season and shot 1-6 against Missouri. These two guys shooting the ball with more consistency is going to be key to Northwestern’s success moving forward. Demps and McIntosh will continue to get their 15-20 points, but North Carolina and Missouri showed everyone in the Big Ten that if you can take shots away from them, you can hold their offense at bay.

Finding Ways to Win

The win over Missouri may have been the most telling for Northwestern so far this season. Playing the last five minutes without McIntosh against a team fighting their way back into the game, Northwestern still found a way to win. Now they are not going to play many more minutes – let alone at the ends of games – with McIntosh on the bench, but the fact that they held on in crunch times with their court leader and leading scorer out of the game says a lot about their will and the way these guys are coached. With Demps being constantly double-teamed, they played to their strengths. They attacked the basket, got to the foul line and tightened up on defense. Winning a close game without your best player on the court is a character building win and one that will pay off as conference play approaches.

 Battle on the Boards

 One aspect of the team that really stood out this week is Northwestern’s struggles on the boards. In these two games combined, they were beaten on the offensive boards 24-11, giving up a combined 22 second-chance points. These opportunities lead directly to runs by North Carolina and Missouri in these games and could very well have made the difference in the North Carolina game. Collins has tried a number of combinations to help on the boards – Olah, Van Zegeren, Skelly, Taphorn – but as a group they need to do a much better job on the defensive boards and limit second chances by teams.

 Protect the Rock

 If Northwestern really wants to compete in the Big Ten, they need to do a better job of taking care of the ball. They committed 24 turnovers in both games, leading to 31 points off turnovers by their opponents in the CBEHOF Classic. Many of these have come from things like illegal screens, but for an offense that can go through long scoring droughts, they cannot give away possessions.

 The Skelly Factor

 After barely seeing the court in their first two games, Gavin Skelly is quickly becoming the Wildcats’ most valuable player off the bench. He has scored some important baskets in late game situations, most notable against Columbia, but it’s the intangibles that make Skelly such an important piece of Northwestern’s early season success. He is an energy guy, the kind of player Collins loves, and he provides a much-needed spark off the bench for an offense that tends to get jumper happy.