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How Northwestern went from ‘Chicago’s Big Ten team’ to Rosemont’s big letdown

After reaching the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, the Northwestern Wildcats have been arguably the biggest letdown in Chicagoland college hoops.

On March 17, 2017, Northwestern coach Chris Collins stood in disbelief, eventually storming onto the hardwood en route to a technical foul. The referees missed Gonzaga center Zach Collins illegally blocking then-sophomore Derek Pardon’s shot attempt through the net, aiding the Bulldogs in their 79-73 win in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Nearly one year later, the fifth-year, basketball preacher presumably wouldn’t mind reliving that moment. The Wildcats (15-14, 6-10) sit in ninth-place in the Big Ten following four straight losses (at Maryland, at Rutgers, vs. No. 2 Michigan State, vs. Maryland). The program’s first trip to March Madness will be the lone appearance for an underachieving group, and there’s no misfortune to blame this time around.

For one, Northwestern’s core, senior personnel failed to progress. Despite dealing with knee and shoulder injuries throughout the season, point guard Bryant McIntosh has seen his scoring (12.1 points per game) dip 2.7 ppg from the 2016-17 campaign, as well as his field goal percentage dropping 1.7 percent (38.7 percent overall). With his percentage of minutes played (70.8 percent) reduced by 14.7 percent from his junior season — and 22.8 percent in conference play — his efficiency shouldn’t have sunken.

Moreover, his total free-throw attempts (55) were nearly sliced in half from a campaign ago (108), as the Greensburg, Ind. native exhibited less aggressiveness in the lane.

Although Scottie Lindsey (14.3 ppg) is still on pace (65 attempts) to reach the line as much as last season (81), his touch from the field remains an issue. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound wing’s two-point shooting stands at 42.9 percent — an 8.6 percent decline. The Wildcats have been wounded by his scoring woes, too, totaling six points via 2-of-7 shooting in their aforementioned 65-60 loss to the Spartans on Saturday. In that match-up, Lindsey and his teammates squandered a 27-point first half lead.

“There’s no question this one stinks, I mean when you have a chance to play the number two team in the country and you’re up 25, 27 or whatever it was and the games there for you to be had, you’ve gotta try to find a way to dig down and win and we just didn’t,” Collins said.

Overall, Northwestern possesses a 2-11 record against opponents with a top-100 RPI rating. Another one of those defeats came in 71-64 loss to Maryland on Monday, blowing an 11-point advantage over the final 19:06. As McIntosh sat on the bench in sweats, forward Vic Law (12.1 ppg) continued to produce modest numbers, notching nine points while shooting 3-of-8 from the field.

The Saint Rita graduate’s effective field goal percentage (51.5 percent) — which puts additional emphasis on three-point shooting — has increased by 3.1 percent, but his inability to ascend as a scorer has limited the Wildcats offensively.

Collins’ bunch ranks 102nd in college basketball in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency (1.09 points per possession) after placing 59th (1.11 PPP) in that department last campaign. Sure, Allstate Arena presents a different shooting backdrop than Welsh-Ryan Arena, which is undergoing construction this season. Yet, that excuse shouldn’t extend beyond non-conference play, lending players time to adjust to their temporary home.

On top of that, Northwestern’s adjusted defensive efficiency (1.00 PPP) slipped to 66th in the nation following a 33rd-place finish in 2016-17 campaign (.95 PPP). The team was aided by ex-forward Sanjay Lumpkin, who provided tremendous help-side defense for the aforementioned Pardon, but forwards Gavin Skelly and Aaron Falzon also never transitioned into anything but shooters.

“Guys were working hard, but you can always notice when there’s an edge to a team,” Collins told the Chicago Sun-Times. “There’s an edge to their workouts, when they’re lifting weights, when they’re shooting, when they’re practicing. Our guys were working, but we didn’t have that same edge. We didn’t have that same hunger that I had seen the previous couple years.”

The 6’8, 235-pound Pardon (11.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and freshman guard Anthony Gaines (3.7 ppg) represent bright spots for the program moving forward, along with three four-star recruits in the Wildcats’ incoming class. However, their future won’t cover up their unexpected regression.

Congratulations, Northwestern. The NIT is awaiting your acceptance letter.

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