Northwestern hopes first loss won't be costly

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Once the question began to unfold, Northwestern Wildcats sophomore point guard David Sobolewski began shaking his head in disapproval.

His squad had just been routed on its home floor, losing 77-57 to the Maryland Terrapins in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday. The query was whether Northwestern’s loss was anything more significant than an early-season defeat, considering the Terps were the first major-conference opponent the Wildcats had faced after starting the season 6-0.

Sobolewski jumped on the question as soon as it was finished.

“No, it wasn’t,” Sobolewski said. “It was a November game against an ACC team. It’s not the end of the season. We got a lot of work to do for sure, but we’re not going to stop working. If anything, this will make us hungrier to improve in practice. So it was nothing more than a loss in November.”

Some would debate that.

Whether the Wildcats like it, the question that will be associated with them from November until March is whether they are an NCAA tournament-caliber team. They’ve never been to the tournament ... and that, more than ever, is the measuring stick for the program after four consecutive NIT appearances. The question won’t disappear until the goal of an NCAA tourney berth is realized.

From that standpoint, Northwestern didn’t look much like a tournament team on Tuesday. The Wildcats were outscored 49-31 in the second half and outrebounded 47-19, shot 6 of 25 from the 3-point range and allowed 44 points in the paint. And their bench was outscored 23-7.

Northwestern coach Bill Carmody understood how one-sided the second half was and got that the Wildcats have to compete with teams like Maryland. But he also remained optimistic they’ll get there.

“We have to be able to play with these guys, especially at home, so I think we’re all disappointed. And we’ll come back out and work hard and get this thing turned around,” Carmody said.

ESPN college basketball analyst Stephen Bardo, who called the game, was more critical of the Wildcats.

“There really wasn’t one thing they did well,” Bardo said. “I think this was a game where anything could go wrong went wrong. It wasn’t necessarily that Maryland is a dominant defensive team; Northwestern just couldn’t get into anything.”

What Northwestern does have in its favor are upcoming games with the Baylor Bears (Dec. 4 in Waco, Texas) and home against the Butler Bulldogs (Dec. 8). The Wildcats’ Big Ten schedule will decide their postseason fate, but both these nonconference games could play a big part, as well.

Baylor has had some early bumps, but it is still a respected program. The Bears will face the Kentucky Wildcats just prior to playing Northwestern. Butler had a strong showing at the Maui Invitational, with wins over the Marquette Golden Eagles and North Carolina Tar Heels.

Bardo thought it was a necessity for Northwestern to defeat Butler and at least compete with Baylor. Last season, the Wildcats lost to Baylor by 28 points in Evanston.

“They’re going to have to do some things if they want to improve their national view,” Bardo said.

While all is certainly not lost with one game in November, the Wildcats now face more of an uphill battle if they’re to reach their ultimate goal.