Lately, the Northwestern men's basketball team (13-11, 4-7 Big Ten) has resembled The Little Engine That Could, battling injuries and obstacles to get within talking distance of the NCAA Tournament bubble. But in Saturday's 71-59 loss to Iowa (15-9, 4-7) in Iowa City, a game wherein the 'Cats struggled to maintain consistency on both sides of the ball, the team lost Alex Olah and Jared Swopshire to injuries. Now, it looks as though this engine is dangerously close to running out of steam.
In the first half, both Northwestern and Iowa showed spurts of excellence tempered by bouts of haplessness. The 'Cats were able to take advantage of Iowa's weak play beneath the rim and pattern of missed layups by out-rebounding Iowa 19-13, including eight offensive rebounds to Iowa's three. Swopshire led the way with 7 rebounds, while Olah and Reggie Hearn both had 4. This gave Northwestern 8 second-chance points off of the ample opportunities the 'Cats had to score.
However, Northwestern failed to take full advantage of these chances. The team shot a lackluster 37 percent (11-29) from the field and only 10 percent (1-10) from behind the arc. Dave Sobolewski, who averages 11 points per game, struggled with his shot all game long, scoring 4 points on seven shots and missing three three-pointers. Reggie Hearn, who has helped lead the team statistically, logistically and emotionally all season long, led Northwestern with eight points in the first half.
The Hawkeyes, bizarrely enough, scored more points off of dunks than layups on the day and made 50 percent of their shots to take a 29-25 lead into halftime. Roy Devyn Marble, who came into the game of the heels of a dismal performance against Wisconsin on Wednesday (2 points, 1-10 shooting), led the way for Iowa with nine points in the first half, including a fast break dunk to start the game.
The lead changed six times in the first half, but the momentum began to swing to Iowa's side when Olah went down clutching the back of his head 18:35 into the second half. Even without Olah, Northwestern was able to stay within 5 points of the Hawkeyes until Swopshire went down with a leg injury.
"Once two of our starters got injured, it just went down hill from there," said Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody after the game. "They just hit the shots they needed and we didn't."
Without Swopshire and Olah, Northwestern lost its height and its edge on Iowa. Carmody was forced to scrounge together a small lineup and try replace the second-chance points and rebounds that helped Northwestern in the first half with three-point attempts that failed to fall.
“We were in the game," Hearn said, "...and all of a sudden we’re playing small, couldn’t get anything going offensively and it just got away from us.”
From the 11:55 mark in the second half, the Hawkeyes went on a 15-5, 5:53 run to cement their 15th win of the season, due in part to a severe difference in depth that the 'Cats were unable to overcome. While the 'Cats were able to score 32 points in the second half, Iowa out-rebounded Northwestern 21-10 and scored 23 points off the bench alone.
“We have as much depth as anybody," Iowa head coach Fran McCafferey said. "[Carmody] doesn’t have that kind of depth right now...so we were able to keep the pressure on them and keep running and then rotate fresh bodies. If you don’t have fresh bodies on the point, you can’t guard that offense.”
By the numbers
1: Point scored each by Mike Turner (25 minutes) and Nikola Cerina (three minutes). Now that Olah is sidelined indefinitely with a head injury, which Carmody suggested afterward could be a concussion, Turner and Cerina will need to step into his role. While Turner's defense has been somewhat stable this season, he's failed to hit his stride offensively, averaging just 1.8 points per game with on 30 percent shooting.
Cerina has missed significant time with an ankle injury, and Carmody has been reluctant to play him this season because of it. If Olah misses significant time, Turner and Cerina will need to significantly contribute if Northwestern hopes to compete in upcoming games against Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Illinois.
8: Northwestern basketball players who have missed time this season due to injury. The Wildcats were expected to compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament this year, but injuries have hampered expectations and dampened the pre-season optimism that surrounded the team.
"It seems like every game we have someone going down with something or someone getting banged up," Alex Marcotullio said, "so it’s tough for our team morale, but we just have to stay up and practice hard and come to work every day.”
What comes next
Northwestern will take on the No. 10 Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus on Thursday, Feb. 14. Whether or not Swopshire and Olah will be able to play was unknown Saturday evening. If they aren't, the 'Cats must prepare to take on a much more challenging opponent with a much lighter lineup.
"It’s tough, but any team is going to have injuries, any team is going to have setbacks, and there’s no excuse to be had," Hearn said. "You’ve just got to fight back, and we tried and were unable to do it tonight."
The engine may very well be running out of steam. But if this season has shown anything, it's that Northwestern can keep going as long as it at it thinks it can.