Northwestern is right back in action Sunday, hosting Indiana. The Hoosiers are 9-7, and have been very predictable this season: at home vs mid to low majors, they win. Away from home or home against Big Ten teams, they lose. Pretty simple.
However, Sunday's game isn't really about Indiana. It's about Northwestern, specifically how Northwestern responds to their dismal start to Big Ten play. Against Purdue, the Wildcats played pretty well for the most part, but didn't have enough in the tank to beat a top 10 team in their own building. Fine. Against Michigan State, they were pretty bad for much of the game, staged an improbable comeback to make it close, then came unglued in the final 30 seconds in large part due to some questionable coaching. Frustrating, but not the end of the world, at least they showed heart down the stretch.
But last night, Northwestern was embarrassed by Illinois. Absolutely no defense, no semblance of a game plan on offense, it was a disaster from beginning to end. All you really need to know is that Nick Fruendt, in five garbage time minutes, was the 'Cats third leading scorer in the game.
So Northwestern is 0-3 in the Big Ten, and the bandwagon is emptying out rapidly. The reaction from many NU fans is making a classic White Stripes song a reality:
Look people, I know last night was terrible, but the season is a long way from over. There are still 15 conference games left, most of them winnable. It's not like a Bill Carmody coached team has never bounced back from a bad start to Big Ten play either; in 2009, NU started 0-4 in the Big Ten, then reeled off 9 out of 14 to get themselves right back on the bubble in early March. Of course, they couldn't quite get over the hump, but they came pretty damn close, so let's not write this team off quite yet.
That being said, there are some pretty glaring problems with this team, and if the ones under Carmody's control aren't fixed on Sunday, then Jim Phillips should be waiting in the locker room with a pink slip. Here are some adjustments that need to be made:
- Help defense from the bigs. Whenever an opposing player beats his man off the dribble and gets into the lane, it's basically a guaranteed lay-up. Luka Mirkovic often doesn't even try to leave his man to help out, and while that's in part because he's really really slow, it often looks as if he's been told to stay with his man no matter what. He needs to stop doing that, and instead rotate over and force the dribbler to make an extra pass, or at the very least, hammer the guy with the ball and make him earn it at the line. Northwestern is currently allowing teams to shoot 51.9% on 2-point field goals, which is 296th in the nation. The next worst in the Big Ten is Iowa, and they allow only 47.8% shooting, ranking them more than 100 spots higher nationally. That is humiliating. While Davide Curletti is far far too aggressive on help defense and fouls basically every time, that's an improvement over MIrkovic's hope the guy misses a lay-up school of help defense. Fix this, Carmody.
- Pick and roll defense. The past two games, Northwestern has looked like they've never seen a pick and roll play before. At least three times that I've seen versus NU's match-up zone, an opposing big sets a screen out near the top of the key, the guy with the ball dribbles past it, and both NU defenders remain stationary, playing a loose double team on the ball while the screener dives to the basket and is wide open for a lay-up. It really looked as though Northwestern was completely unprepared for what to do against one of the most basic offensive strategies in the playbook, which is unacceptable. Let's see some kind of coherent plan on Sunday, based on the strengths and weakness of the opposing players involved, which leads me to point number three.
- Be aware of the scouting report. Against Illinois, Northwestern had no clue as to the tendencies of the Illini players. In the first couple of minutes, they let Demetri McCamey bury a wide open three from the top of the key, even though an NU defender was right there. Yes, McCamey took the shot from NBA range, but here's a newsflash: McCamey has range out to the NBA line. I watched the Illini play in Madison Square Garden earlier this year and saw McCamey repeatedly take (and make) threes from behind the NBA line. If I knew this watching from my living room, how did the Northwestern players not know it? I also saw a couple of times where they lazily closed out on D.J. Richardson, another excellent 3-point shooter, except unlike McCamey, Richardson isn't really a threat to drive. The NU players didn't seem aware of this though, which is extremely frustrating. Against Indiana, let's see the coaching staff do their homework and have the players prepared.
- Get Drew Crawford to stop chucking NBA threes and start attacking the basket. After last night's 0 for 6 from three performance, Crawford is now shooting 29% from three on the season, a borderline Jeremy Nashian percentage. Meanwhile, he has only attempted 27 free throws all season, and only 16 in his last 10 games. For a player of his athleticism, that's not acceptable. The coaching staff needs to rein Crawford in and get him attacking off the dribble, he just isn't a good enough shooter to justify so many deep three point attempts.
- Get Luka Mirkovic involved early. Love him or hate him (and it's mostly hate from the fanbase as of now) Luka is the best option in the post, and if he can get a couple of easy lay-ups early on against the Hoosiers' suspect front line, it should boost his confidence and get him going. Luka has always been a barometer for the rest of the team, so let's get him involved in the offense and go from there.
As I mentioned earlier, Sunday's game isn't really about Indiana. It doesn't matter whether Northwestern is playing Indiana or Duke or Arkansas-Pine Bluff, they need to bounce back from last night's debacle, play hard, and more importantly play smart and look as though they actually prepared for the game. In 2009, NU had a nearly identical start to Big Ten play, losing their opener on the road, losing at home to Michigan State, then getting embarrassed at Wisconsin. Rather than pack it in (and it would have been very easy to considering their next three opponents were all ranked), NU responded by playing very well in all three games. They lost a heart breaker to Purdue at home, but that loss was because of three missed front ends and a late missed lay-up by Jeremy Nash; the effort and execution of the game plan weren't the problem. Then, they won convincingly over Minnesota at home, and went to Michigan State and stunned the Spartans. So let's see if Carmody can rally the troops and salvage the season. If the same easily correctable problems persist against Indiana, then it's time to fire him and start thinking about 2011-12.