Wildcats showed grit

By Lucas Deal

EVANSTON – For many years, the Big Ten Conference has been known as one of the greatest college sports conferences in the nation. Formed in 1896, the conference has been home to a dozen top-tier colleges and universities throughout the Midwest.

The league overlooks 11 universities since Penn State’s addition in 1990, ten of which are public. The conference’s only private university is Northwestern, which has an enrollment of approximately 15,000 in Evanston.

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Because of its size and tuition rates, Northwestern has long since been known as a Big Ten cellar dweller; a team unable to consistently field championship-caliber sports teams.

So, the Wildcats have instead adopted the strategy of utilizing different systems to maximize their teams’ talents.

In basketball, Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody runs the Princeton offense and two solid zone defenses. Carmody uses these systems to limit the number of possessions opposing teams get against his Wildcats per game.

While this often keeps Northwestern within striking distance against superior teams, the Wildcats are rarely able to muster enough offense to push themselves over the top.

Such was the case on Wednesday night, as the Wildcats hung with Illinois nearly 30 minutes before the Illini pulled away for a 58-43 win at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

I have to be honest. After Illinois jumped out to an early 17-3 lead, I figured Northwestern would just pack it up and go home.

I mean, the Wildcats are 1-9 in the Big Ten and aren’t going anywhere, why would they want to bust their humps for the game’s final 30-plus minutes if they weren’t going to win anyway?

But Northwestern didn’t go away like I had expected. Despite being smaller, shorter, slower and considerably less talented than the Illini, the Wildcats mounted a substantial first-half comeback to close the gap to 26-23 late in the period.

Illinois responded with the last five points of the half, but I couldn’t help but wonder, “How could a team of Northwestern’s makeup hang with the Illini?”

Turns out while Carmody’s players may not be good enough to upset the Illini, their defense might be.

Northwestern’s zone did a great job of keeping the Illini offense on the perimeter and with the exception of a couple of late drives to the hoop, the Illini were forced to fire from deep and then crash the glass.

I guess it worked, because the Illini won, but their offense was still far from crisp against the Wildcats.

The Illini shot 43 percent for the game and were 9 for 22 from the three-point line. Of those 22 threes, half were taken by Rich McBride, who scored 15 points in what was arguably his best game of the season.

It was the type of defensive effort Northwestern needs to have a chance to compete in the Big Ten, unfortunately for Carmody, his team’s offense was not able to back up its defensive prowess.

Illinois absolutely dominated the Wildcats defensively and on the glass (a 40-16 edge overall), but Northwestern still fought to the end.

That impresses me. It really does.

For a team to be struggling as much as Northwestern is, and to shoot as poorly (3 of 18 from three) and play as poorly as they did and still be fighting right down to the last minute, I think that is admirable.

Besides, for Northwestern, it’s about all they’ve got left.

It’s like I said earlier: they aren’t going anywhere.

Lucas Deal is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]