EVANSTON-While the late girlfriend of Manti Te'o was nothing but an intricate, fabricated lie, Northwestern's loss to Iowa on Sunday was all too real.
After the 20-point blowout to the Hawkeyes, Northwestern was left to pick up the pieces and salvage a season that is in danger of running off the rails.
But there is no rest for the weary as the Cats visit No. 23 Illinois on Thursday in hopes of earning a much-needed victory over their instate rival.
When Northwestern made last year's trip to Champaign, John Shurna scored a game-high 24 points to help the Wildcats pick up a critical 74-70 win. It was just the Cats' fifth victory in 44 games at Assembly Hall, and it enabled them to stay in the hunt for a NCAA Tournament bid.
Yet regardless of Thursday's outcome, the march to the postseason has very likely already ended. Sure, Northwestern (10-7, 1-3 Big Ten) could get hot as the Big Ten season continues, assuming fifth-year senior forward Jared Swopshire suddenly gets aggressive, fellow freshman Alex Olah starts defending the paint like a dominant center and the Wildcat guards start lighting it up from beyond the arc.
Impossible? No. But about as likely as Drew Crawford making threes from the bench with his bum shoulder.
Despite all the signs that the season is lost, Thursday presents perhaps the best chance of the year to upset an AP Top 25 team. Though Illinois (14-4, 1-3) thrashed then-No. 8 Ohio State by 19 points on Jan. 5, since then the Fighting Illini were blown out by Minnesota and Wisconsin by a combined 40 points. The Illini started the season 12-0 but have since lost four of six, including three of four in the Big Ten.
Like Northwestern, the Illini live and die by the three. They shoot an average of almost 25 a game, compared to just over 22 for the Cats.
And much like any team dependent on the long ball, when the shots don't fall for the Illini, they are in trouble.
If Northwestern can apply defensive pressure Thursday, an aspect of the game head coach Bill Carmody stressed this week, the Cats could have a chance to improve their conference record to 2-3.
There are three keys to the Wildcats stealing a win in Champaign:
Contain Brandon Paul: If the Wildcats are to have any chance at victory Thursday, they must limit the Big Ten's second-leading scorer. Paul, the senior guard, is averaging 18.1 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Though he has scored more than 20 points in seven games this season, he is coming off the worst performance of the year, a 1-for-11 clunker against Wisconsin in which he only recorded 8 points. Still, Paul is Carmody's main concern as Northwestern travels to Champaign.
"He's smart, he's athletic, he's shooting the ball very well now," Carmody said. "He's always been able to go by his guy a little bit, an open-court player. Now it seems like he's much more potent in the half-court. When you can play full-court and get out and run and get some easy ones, but you can also knock down shots, that's a tough thing to guard."
Sobolewski calls Paul a "great player."
As Northwestern looks to pull out the road victory, the team must limit Paul's offensive impact in a way it did not against the likes of Mississippi Valley State's Davon Usher, Maryland's Dez Wells and Michigan's Trey Burke.
Shoot better from beyond the arc: Quite simply, it cannot get any worse for Northwestern. The Cats shot an atrocious 19 percent on three-pointers against Iowa, missing 21 threes in the process.
More important than the large volume of missed shots was the Northwestern's gross inefficiency. Despite shooting more than half of its field goal attempts from beyond the arc (26-of-51), the team only totaled 50 points.
Before Thursday's practice, Sobolewski emphasized a need to run the offense rather than settle for three-point attempts.
"We have to run through our stuff better, move from one thing to the next, and knock down open shots," he said. "We missed a lot of open shots against Iowa."
Carmody agreed, citing the importance of mixing in some easy baskets to the Cats' attack.
"I'd like to see us have a little bit more balance," he said. "We're not gonna get too many offensive rebounds, but I think we can start making some of our back door cuts... If we can get that balance, it takes a little heat of your shooting, and then shots go in more because you don't feel so much pressure."
If Northwestern can cause the Illini defense to collapse inside, the Cats will be able to find open shots on the outside. Then, they need to knock them down.
Keep the score low: Illinois currently averages 73.9 points per game, and Northwestern will likely need to keep the score lower if it hopes to win.
"If they score eighty or more points, we have no chance to win," Sobolewski said. "So our focus is definitely on the defensive end."
Carmody believes this defensive intensity must start in transition. A few easy hoops could easily swing the game in the Illini's favor.
"They're gonna knock down some threes, you know that," Carmody said, "but I don't think we can let them get out on the break, because when they're running, they're very, very good."
A slow-down, half-court game plan, such as the one employed against Minnesota, seems to be Northwestern's best chance at slowing the tempo and keeping the clamps on Illinois' potentially explosive offense.