by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
In the span of 40 minutes, the short-term outlook on Northwestern’s season changed dramatically. A loss at Baylor would not have hurt the Wildcats’ nonconference platform. Baylor is a top 25 team in its own right, coming off a huge win over Kentucky and riding all sorts of positive momentum. By contrast, winning at Waco could very well have a transformative effect on the Wildcats early-season results. Through the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s RPI-dominated evaluation lens, it should hold up as a sparkling data point for the bubble-bound Wildcats (let’s be real: if Northwestern’s getting to the Tournament this year, it will spend large stretches of the season on the bubble. It’s inevitable). It should also do wonders for the Wildcats confidence as they play out the remainder of their nonconference slate and prepare for Big Ten play.
The next step for Northwestern is to prove it can take its performance in the Baylor game and extend it into a sustained period of success. Beating Butler Saturday night is the only way to truly validate Tuesday night’s road win. It won’t be anything close to easy: Butler, for what its worth in the context of an early nonconference game, has participated in two of the last three National Championship games. Coach Brad Stevens is battle-tested at the highest level, and he has his team playing the type of basketball that’s made Butler such a nuisance in recent postseasons: defensive discipline, attention to detail, mistake-free offense, high-percentage offensive glasswork. Northwestern will need a well-rounded effort to avoid a let down. Here’s what you need to know.
Three Players to Watch
Rotnei Clarke (Senior, point guard)
The biggest reason for Butler’s regression last season was a poor three-point shooting. The Bulldogs used just 31.9 percent of total shot attempts on outside shots and converted just 27.2 percent of those attempts (per kenpom.com), which ranked 191st and 341st in those respective categories. Clarke was seen as something of a silver bullet to their three-point woes and through eight games of the season, he’s proven exactly that. Clarke, who sat out last season after transferring from Arkansas, is hitting at a 43 percent clip from beyond the arc. He’s also commanding a larger percentage of available shots (30.2 percent) and using a larger number of possessions (25.4) than ever before in his career, and remaining remarkably efficient while doing so. On a per-possession basis, Clarke’s 1.16 PPP is an impressive figure given his outsized role in the offense (Clarke is using 25.4 percent of available possessions and taking 30.2 percent of his team’s shots). In case this crammed statistical profiling didn’t make the message clear enough, here’s what you need to know about Clarke: Northwestern needs to pay special attention to the senior point guard, because if he’s open, Clarke won’t hesitate to pull the trigger; and a lot of the time, those shots are going to fall.
Khyle Marshall (Senior, forward)
It might surprise you that Marshall, standing at 6-6, 212 pounds, is one of the nation’s top offensive rebounders. It’s not often you see players his size crash the glass the way Marshall does. But if you’ve seen Marshall play, it’s not at all difficult to figure out why he grabs opponent’s misses at such a high rate (15.2 percent on the defensive end; 13.5 percent on the offensive end, to be exact). Marshall finds his man, clears out the low block and explodes to the ball. It doesn’t hurt when you also have the almost preternatural ability to anticipate a ball’s bounce trajectory, which allows Marshall to beat opponents to the spot. Marshall doesn’t get his team’s extra possessions and shots because of physical strength or athleticism. He is a rebound fundamentalist and a knowledgeable frontcourt operator. He’s never shied away from longer or bigger frontcourt opponents, and that hasn’t changed this season. If you want to see classic rebounding technique in its purest form, watch Marshall work the glass Saturday night, especially on offense.
Andrew Smith (Senior, center)
Offensively, Smith won’t dazzle you with refined post moves or a dynamic spot-up game. What he will do is defend like crazy and anchor the low post. Smith has been a through-line in Butler’s recent rise to NCAA Tournament glory, and he’s back for one Final season, this time inheriting more offensive and defensive responsibilities than he did in the Bulldogs’ consecutive national championship runs. Though he stands 6-11, 243 pounds, he doesn’t rebound nearly as effectively as Marshall, nor is his 3.7 block percentage an especially noteworthy metric. What Smith does bring is efficient scoring inside the low post. Through eight games, Smith has converted just over 63 percent of two-point field goal attempts while taking just under 20 percent of available shots, which translates to a tidy 114.4 points-per-possession scoring rate. Smith is not an immensely talented low-post scorer or an elite athlete. He is a fundamentally-sound catch-and-shoot finisher near the rim and an excellent facilitator in Stevens’ screen-heavy offense.
Key Matchup: Dave Sobolewski vs. Rotnei Clarke
In an unexpected strategic twist, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody elected to deploy a man defense against for large stretches against Baylor. The move didn’t make sense for several reasons, but the most obvious is simple: Northwestern doesn’t have the athleticism to guard with five-star recruits and future first-round draft picks in the open court. Few teams do. Whatever the impetus behind his chosen tactic, the man defense largely worked. It stands to reason Northwestern will go man on at least a fraction of defensive possessions Saturday night – particularly because Butler, unlike Baylor, presents reasonable individual matchups for the Wildcats. We may not get to see Sobolewski guard Clarke individually in any extended context, but delving into these two players is a nice way to illustrate how critical sound point guard play is to both teams’ offenses. The Bulldogs rely on Clarke for a larger scoring load than Northwestern does Sobolewski, but as we saw Wednesday night against Baylor, Sobolewski is an invaluable piece of Northwestern’s offensive execution – and he can hit big shots, too. Clarke is better shooter and all-around scorer, but Sobolewski is a superior passer and ball-handler. Even if these two aren’t matching up on both ends of the floor, it’s an interesting role-specific clash of point guard responsibility. While Clarke’s value is visibly plain on box scores and recap briefs, Sobolewski’s contributions are often far less distinguishable in counting statistics. Whichever guard has the better game will go a long way toward deciding whether Northwestern picks up its second consecutive nonconference resume boost, of if the momentum from the Baylor win falls flat against Stevens’ Tournament-bound outfit.