Despite their thrilling overtime victory over Minnesota, Northwestern’s recent play has been fairly inconsistent. The two games prior to Sunday’s win were as different as night and day — the ‘Cats impressed in their win against Indiana as much as they disappointed in their loss to Iowa.
How could the Wildcats look so good against one Big 10 cellar-dweller and the complete opposite against another one? Part of the reason is certainly the inconsistency of younger players like sophomore Luka Mirkovic and freshman Drew Crawford, who always seem to play better at home than on the road. Another part is the reliance on jump shots to almost exclusively create offense. But some of the reason is also schematic. To break it down, we have to go game by game, offense and defense.
Offense: This game represented everything that Northwestern’s Princeton offense could bring. It resembled more of the style that Georgetown puts on the Princeton offense: more screen rolls at the top of the key with Thompson and Nash, and more dribble penetration and back cuts off of dribble penetration along the baseline. That threat of scoring from inside the three-point line collapses the defense and opens up the three-point opportunities that Northwestern loves so much. When that happens, Northwestern gets good, clean looks at the basket from the interior and the three-point line, evident by the high shooting percentage. There was also a concerted effort to establish Luka Mirkovic in the post. His ability to be productive with his touches creates opportunities at the foul line and in the lane. The Princeton is supposed to create balanced scoring and Sunday it did just that. It’s the best they have looked offensively all year.
Defense: It is in games like these, against teams like Indiana, when then 1-3-1 zone works at its best. Teams without established point guards that make good decisions and break the traps really struggle against the zone, which is why Ohio State and Michigan State abuse the zone and why it was is successful against Indiana. They really had trouble penetrating the zone with any kind of effectiveness and it created a lot of difficult, contested shots that led to nine Northwestern blocks. Plus, with the continued integration of the 2-3 matchup zone and more man-to-man, it was hard for Indiana to key on anything to produce consistent offense.
Offense: Reminiscent of the problems against Ohio State, Michigan State and even Butler, Northwestern played too predictably. Too often against Iowa, especially in the first half, the ball wouldn’t attack inside the three-point line for most — if not all — of the shot clock. It usually ended in contested jumpshots. Without any kind of threat on the interior, with Luka struggling and no dribble penetration, the ‘Cats became much easier to defend. In the first half, Northwestern went 36% from the field and 3-12 from distance. They were unable to make difficult shots and unable to create easy ones. Other than the last five minutes, with the game basically decided and Northwestern finally creating opportunities in the paint, the ‘Cats never threatened with looks on the inside.
Defense: Looking at the Iowa offense, you would think that a 1-3-1 zone would work, since their inexperienced point guards would have trouble with the zone’s traps. Judging by the way the Iowa point guards handled the full-court pressure at some moments, it could have worked. Iowa, though, was able to be patient with the ball and find the holes along the baseline and in the corner to set up easy three-point opportunities for Devan Bawinkel. Northwestern responded by taking a guy away from the trap on the baseline, creating another opening on the wing, which Iowa exploited especially in the second half. Iowa didn’t really have much off of dribble penetration, so it may have been better suited to go man for most of the game and force them to make plays off the bounce. The zone just gave up too many open looks and Iowa converted, nailing 12 threes of 24 attempts.
Coach Bill Carmody has to be a little more flexible offensively and defensively in terms of scheme. Senior Jeremy Nash has been fantastic in pick and roll situations the entire year, so giving him more of those opportunities will create more offense when things become more stagnant. Defensively, the 1-3-1 zone may need to be slowly fazed out of the repertoire, as it seems that the Big 10 has caught up on the defense that helped Northwestern so much last year.