Northwestern basketball is in a bit of a conundrum early in the season. We've lost our single best player, team leader, and all-around super-dude Kevin Coble to something called a "Lisfranc fracture." We've lost his primary backup Jeff Ryan to a torn ACL. Jeremy Nash might have serious heart problems. These are things that could get any team out of rhythm for a while. And for a while I mean a few days. Coble is still on the sidelines, which should help leadership. The team should begin to accept Ryan's injury. We'll know more about Nash in the coming days. Ideally this whole thing should blow over by the end of next week and we should have the inklings of a team identity without Coble.
It's true, I had almost no hope us winning this game. Butler is ranked 10th in the nation for a reason (from my experience, basketball rankings don't fluctuate nearly as wildly as their football counterparts), and to upset such a team in the second game of the season down 2 players and reeling from misfortune would have been nothing short of a miracle. I think we might have actually laked the Ryan Field goalposts if we had won that game. But we didn't, and that was expected. But I also expected to come away from the game feeling like we played our hardest and still have a fighting chance for the rest of the season.
That expectation fell surprisingly... dishearteningly... flat.
The team that faced Butler on Wednesday night was a team that seemed fragmented and unconfident in its abilities. There were several occasions where I not only saw, but heard Michael (sorry, Juice plays for the Illini) Thompson yelling at other players on the floor to get into a position on offense. He sounded angry; maybe angrier than he'd ever been. As if Ivan Peljusic missing his spot was the end of the world. And normally I'd be all for good ol' Mike taking control of the situation, leading the team in Coble's absence. He needs to do it anyway, right? But then I saw Jeremy Nash do the same thing. Then I saw Alex Marcotullio (who I may have a budding man-crush for) direct the offense. Who is the leader of this team? At this point I think it really ought to be Thompson, but he doesn't seem to quite have control over it.
What's more, this lack of leadership seems to have everyone discombobulated. There were more of our players on the floor than I've seen in a long time. We got suckered into every pick that Butler set (Mike bounces, bt-dubs), whereas they gracefully switched coverage and moved around ours. We made sloppy passes. We squandered easy baskets. We didn't get offensive rebounds (ok). We didn't get defensive rebounds (not ok). All in all it looked like a bunch of guys that were just attacking the ball. Double team didn't work. Full court press was slow. 1-3-1 was countered by Butler getting it to the wing and taking advantage of the fact that Thompson was always on the other side of the court. Everything seemed to be going wrong, and it seemed to take even more wind out of the sails of an already stalled team.
Confidence is really going to be an issue. I thought we looked confident against NIU, but that seems to have just disappeared. I swear, I saw the first ever (ever!) fade-away layup last night. That only happens if you're afraid of getting stuffed, and we had the size advantage for the most part, so there's no reason for that. In fact, I see a number of good things that should lead to some more confidence for the Wildcats:
• Kyle Rowley is beastly. I swear he looks more like Shaq and less like the Stay-Puft marshmallow man every day. He's big and he's strong and he's still afraid to drive the basket. All he needs to do is realize that he's bigger than most of the NCAA (if not, certainly the conference), and just needs to go out there and assert himself. Maybe Carmody should let him direct some offensive sets...
• Alex Marcotullio is good. He can shoot. He hit two massive threes and looked like a kid at Disney after hitting them. It was great. And not only that, but he also looked good on defense, getting some nice steal-type moves in there and defending his men well. I don't recall him missing a spot or leaving a man horrifically wide open (as happened several times). Hopefully his enthusiasm is as high as I'm imagining and it'll rub off on the team.
• Drew Crawford wasn't in foul trouble. The dude had some shining moments on offense (despite some meh to bad defensive ones), and if the guy gets more experience and continues to not draw the dumb chicken, he could be a strong candidate to attack the basket, something the 'Cats desperately need.
• Free throw shooting was decent. I'm no longer hanging on the edge of my seat praying for a shot to go in. We've got what appears to be consistent at the line in most of our players (Rowley and Thompson hit the majority of theirs, I believe, and they were the ones that seem to be at the line the most), and this can only translate to being able to hang on to tight games (Illinois last year was just a bad dream).
All said, we've got the pieces to be decent. Certainly not as great as we were expected to be, but decent. Marcotullio and Crawford should improve. Rowley should become more assertive. Thompson will chill out a bit. But these things will only come about if our team gains confidence, and the only way to gain confidence is to win by playing fundamentally sound basketball. Northwestern didn't do that last night and they need to prove to me and the rest of their fans that they have the ability to play with sound fundamentals. I hope they can turn it around.