Say this for Northwestern’s basketball players: They’re dependable.
When you think the Wildcats are on a roll, they’ll unroll.
When you know they’re going to win, they’ll lose.
Conversely, when they are way overmatched — as in the last few weeks against then-No. 23 Illinois, against Indiana in Bloomington, against then-No. 14 Wisconsin in Madison, against Minnesota in Minneapolis — they will win.
Thus, their 53-49 loss Saturday to the middling Nebraska Cornhuskers (12-10, 4-6 Big Ten) at loud Welsh-Ryan Arena was — sigh — to be expected.
The Wildcats were a 1 1/2-point favorite. Omen right there. NU is never favored.
They had won their last two games, both on the road, and four of their last seven, all against Big Ten foes. All unexpected.
For his recent heroics, senior swingman Drew Crawford had just been named the United States Basketball Writers Association’s player of the week. That covers all of D-I hoops, folks. Like, sea to shining sea, plus Lake Michigan.
But when a team can’t score — 22 points in the first half, 27 in the second — it’s hard to beat anybody, no matter how tough your defense is.
“We just couldn’t score,’’ rookie coach Chris Collins accurately said. “That’s nothing new.’’
It isn’t. But what is new is the way Northwestern had turned its defense up from about a 5 to at least an 8. Sometimes a 9. Against Illinois, which was held to 43 in the Cats’ first Big Ten victory, they might have momentarily hit 10.
But even if you hold a team to zero, you have to make a basket sometime.
“Our margin for error is so thin,’’ said Collins, meaning that Northwestern does not have the talent — the individual, crazy, shot-creating skills — that can enable it to blow out teams or win when it isn’t at its full-floor peak.
That means possessions are critical. Crawford, NU’s best player, nevertheless missed nine of his 13 shots and had five turnovers. Can’t do that.
There was speculation that Northwestern was too confident after its recent successes, that coming home and playing a school known for its football program would be a trap game.
Trap game it was. But not, one hopes, from any Wildcats arrogance. Crawford, the quiet floor leader, was asked whether that player of the week honor had gone to his head.
No, he said, head down. “I really try not to pay attention to any of that stuff.’’
Players with great creative shooting skills are the talented athletes that every big-time coach covets. No different for Collins, who learned his playing and coaching game at the knee of St. Coach K, the Earl of Duke.
But Mike Krzyzewski gets a player such as Simeon All-American Jabari Parker to come to Durham, N.C. — to a small, private, academically rugged university —from right under Northwestern’s nose. Northwestern is the same kind of school as Duke, only without the history or street cred.
Collins has not yet brought in and coached his first class, and maybe the five high school kids he signed this winter will be as good as advertised. They’re supposed to be good. That’s the word. And five players — why, that’s a new lineup in itself.
But this maddening dependability of NU’s overachieving hoops team is like watching an old car, pedal to the metal, pistons ready to fly through the engine housing, with a couple of flat tires.
Consistent? NU shot 38 percent from the floor in the first half, 36 percent in the second, 37 percent for the game. Bad, bad, bad.
It’s not like the fellows aren’t trying.
“They’re the best defensive team in the league,’’ Nebraska coach Tim Miles praised afterward. Indeed, the Cats held Nebraska to 25 percent shooting in the first half while taking a rim-busting 22-16 lead. The Huskers’ football team scored more first-half points last season than the basketball team did Saturday — seven times.
But in the second half, Northwestern couldn’t contain Nebraska’s leading scorer, Terran Petteway, and forwards Walter Pitchford and Shavon Shields, and the Huskers blazed away for 37 points on 56.5 percent shooting.
Trying to win every game by a football score is a tough road for the Wildcats. But they’re 5-6 in the Big Ten, and nobody thought that would happen with this hustling but very limited team.
“This is just the start,’’ promised Collins of the excitement that permeated the arena.
That start jolted to a pause Saturday. And the buzz faded, as we knew it would.