Pat Fitzgerald was back in Evanston at Welsh-Ryan Arena with a shiny new trophy to show off to an adoring fan base. Several students in the stands had on their Gator Bowl championship shirts and various bowl merchandise. Even with a large deficit, the smiles and the bowl talk could not stop.
Yes, Northwestern still won 34-20 and broke that well-publicized bowl streak. Let that comfort you when reading the rest of this post. Because the basketball season could be a long one and could be a hard one to watch for Northwestern fans.
Then again, Michigan is the No. 2 team in the country and showed Northwestern exactly why that is in a 94-66 win at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday.
The slow pace of previous John Beilein teams appears to be a thing of the past with likely lottery pick Trey Burke leading a fast break attack that took advantage of every Northwestern turnover, missed shot and missed rotation. Burke started the attack with 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting and 4-for-6 shooting from beyond the arc, making 13 it seemed in the first 10 minutes of the game. Then he got to work with five assists, setting up the offense in transition.
Michigan really played very little of the game in its half-court offense. And when it did Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. picked the Wildcats defense apart.
The Wolverines as a team shot 59.6 percent from the floor and 13 for 22 from beyond the arc. It was just a complete destruction and even some of Northwestern’s best defense was not good enough on many possessions. Hardaway Jr. had 21 points on eight field goal attempts and added five assists and four 3-pointers.
Northwestern’s offense had a decent amount of flow offensively. But the early deficit proved to be too much. Northwestern gave up 10 points in the first four minutes and did not score. It was a double digit deficit early and only proved to get worse as the game went on. Northwestern made mini runs, but were never in the game. That was the kind of game Michigan had.
The Wildcats, it seemed, were running through their offense quickly trying to get all the points back at once. So the early deficit proved to matter for this young NU team.
Northwestern shot 40.7 percent from the field and 10 for 28 from beyond the arc. The large amount of 3-point attempts is a sign of how much Northwestern felt it had to come back.
Four players scored in double figures with Jared Swopshire and Kale Abrahamson scoring 11 points. Alex Olah and Tre Demps scored 10 points. Dave Sobolewski had only seven points to go with five assists. Nobody seemed able to get into a rhythm. Demps was 4 for 11 and Abrahamson was 3 for 8, showing flashes of their potential but also plenty of their youth. Alex Olah was 4 for 8 and looked good in the first half but largely disappeared in the second.
Not having Reggie Hearn hurt. Hearn does a lot of the dirty work and is a second ball handler to help Sobolewski out. With 12 turnovers and Michigan running on every mistake, that could have been a big boost.
This may not be a fair representation of what Northwestern will be like in the Big Ten season. But there will be a lot of growing pains for this team. There may be some ugly results against the better teams — like Michigan.
And so, Thursday was a back to reality moment for the long winter basketball season that could be ahead.