Northwestern fell Friday to Michigan State 61-52 in East Lansing. The game was all Spartans early, and while Northwestern fought back, Michigan State held its lead all game long. Michigan State, now unranked, was a top-15 team in preseason polls. This is a young group for Tom Izzo, and his best NBA prospect, freshman Miles Bridges, was sidelined with an ankle injury.
Northwestern came into the game fresh off a win over Penn State in their conference opener, and now moves to 12-3 on the year. This put an end to a nine-game win streak for the Wildcats, and the team will face Minnesota at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Jan. 5 for their conference home opener.
Northwestern falls, but not hopelessly
If you type “pick and roll defense” into the Google search bar, the third suggested search is “pick and roll defense Tom Izzo.” This is, of course, because Tom Izzo invented the pick and roll in a past life. Izzo now lives as a bodhisattva, an enlightened basketball soul who has chosen to stay on earth to school young aspirants like Chris Collins.
Northwestern had no answer for Tom Izzo’s zen in the first thirteen minutes, and it fell into a 19 point deficit. Michigan State neutralized Northwestern’s on and off-ball screens by hedging hard to deny the ball, then sending the screener’s defender in a dead sprint back to his man. (A hedge is like a temporary double-team).
This strategy helps to neutralize opposing guards and wings, but it gives versatile big men an opportunity to find soft spots in the defense. But that is exactly why Izzo chose to use it. Northwestern is a team without serious frontcourt depth or experience to begin with, and this was exacerbated by their foul trouble in this game and Dererk Pardon’s injury.
But Chris Collins is no ordinary layman. He eventually made the adjustment to go small for the rest of the game. Northwestern’s small-ball lineup even forced Michigan State’s big man, Nick Ward, off the floor and allowed Northwestern to get on even keels size-wise. Collins also used his stretch bigs, Nathan Taphorn and Sanjay Lumpkin, in more creative screens that opened up the Spartan defense.
Collins’s adjustments may not have been enough to win, but Northwestern outscored Michigan State by 10 in the final 27 minutes of play. Northwestern won’t get another full game against the Spartans to use this adjustment for all 40 minutes unless the two teams play in the Big Ten Tournament, but the small ball lineup at least gives Northwestern more flexibility with Falzon out for the year and Pardon out until likely NU's next game against Minnesota.
The long arm of the Law
Just like Draymond Green is the key to the Golden State Warriors’ “lineup of death,” in which the 6'7" Green plays center, Vic Law has kept Northwestern’s small ball lineups afloat with his rebounding and defensive versatility. There were at least two instances in Friday’s loss where Law came out of nowhere to jump over taller Michigan State players and pluck rebounds from the stratosphere.
Law’s wingspan and athleticism allow him to play like he’s 6’10" even though he’s only listed at 6’7". Offensively, Law uses his pseudo-height to get good post position against smaller players. Larger defenders have trouble staying with Law off the dribble, which makes him a matchup nightmare.
Conversely, Law has the quickness to stay in front of quicker guards on defense, and he also has the length and instinct to hold his own defending the block. Law and the similarly skilled Sanjay Lumpkin are holding down the Northwestern interior defense when Collins chooses to go small. The collective spacing and athleticism on offense are playing opposing bigs off the floor and allowing Northwestern to take control of games’ tempo.
Northwestern had three players foul out of Friday’s game in East Lansing, and Barret Benson had three fouls in just 12 minutes. Gavin Skelly struggled with Nick Ward on the block, and he fouled out in just 12 minutes on the floor. While Collins’ choice to go small proved very useful, it also wasn’t much of a choice at all.
Given Northwestern’s lack of health and experience, this type of game was bound to happen, and it’s not surprising that it came against a physical team like Michigan State. But the Big Ten is full of teams with experienced big men and smart coaches who will try to exploit this weakness.
Look for Collins to make adjustments in subsequent games. One possibility is rotating Law, Lumpkin and Skelly onto the opposing team’s primary big to keep any one of them out of foul trouble. Lumpkin also fouled out of Friday’s game, but his fifth foul was in the game’s final moments. Law actually led the team in minutes played with 36, and he had only two fouls.
But the most important adjustment for the ‘Cats isn’t one Collins can make himself: getting Dererk Pardon back on the floor. Just having an extra body will help Skelly fit into a more natural role off the bench and lighten the load on Lumpkin and Law. Pardon was re-evaluated at the start of conference play, but is still sidelined with a hand injury he suffered in early December. It looks like Pardon could be back any game now, but there is no date set for his comeback.