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Northwestern Looks To Control Tempo Against No. 2 Indiana

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

The blueprint for Indiana’s demise rests in the game film from Wisconsin’s Wednesday night stunner in Assembly Hall. For 40 minutes, the Badgers took Indiana out of its customary high-paced comfort zone. They crafted the tempo to their liking – the Hoosiers made 59 trips down the court, down 11 from their season average.

That slow game has no place in the Hoosiers’ run-run-run mentality. Tom Crean’s team was visibly frustrated with Wisconsin’s ability to grind the ball to a halt, a trademark Bo Ryan ploy. It served notice for Northwestern senior Reggie Hearn, who scored 20 points on 4-for-7 shooting in Thursday night’s upset win at Illinois. Hearn digested all 40 minutes of the Wisconsin win.

“We’re just going to impose our will and try to control the tempo,” Hearn said of matching up against Indiana. “We’re going to have to be disciplined and limit our turnovers.”

Allowing Indiana to control the flow of the game – to get up and down the floor, convert easy buckets in transition, build momentum off turnovers, catch defenses off guard – is a death sentence. No team is as lethal in a high-paced game as the Hoosiers. Wisconsin’s slowball was the perfect counterpunch. It’s something Hearn feels the Wildcats need to emulate.

“Wisconsin does what we hope to do,” he said. “They maintain the tempo that they want. They control the game, they play solid defensively. That’s what it takes to beat Indiana.”

This won’t be anything new for the Wildcats. On Thursday night, when Northwestern’s three-point stroke fell flat in the second half and Illinois tried to storm back from a 15-point halftime deficit with all kinds of unique trapping devices and overload pressured, it resorted to a slower pace.

It was the best way to keep the Illini out of their transition game, and to ensure Northwestern could run its sets and settle things down in the halfcourt. Looking back, Hearn sees aspects of Thursday night’s gameplan that can be applied to stopping the high-flying Hoosiers.

“Illinois is a team that likes to get out in transition. That’s how they thrive,” he said. “We know Indiana can score in transition, too. Maintaining control of the game is about limiting their number of possessions and turnovers. We limit their possessions, we have a pretty good chance.”

Spoken like a true tempo-free wonk. Coach Bill Carmody sees eye-to-eye with Hearn on the Hoosiers. If Northwestern allows Indiana to really get going, Sunday’s game could devolve into a repeat of the Iowa or Minnesota games, where the Wildcats were overrun with quick baskets and second chance points.

For Carmody, the biggest key to controlling the pace against Indiana is limiting turnovers. The reasons for this are simple. Beyond the obvious advantage of not relinquishing possession of the ball, minimizing turnovers obstructs opposing teams from executing a host of strategic aims – from easy run-outs, to numerical mismatches on the break, to hazardous full-court traps. What’s more, a loss of possession often impedes a defense from recovering in time to defend the other end of the floor.

It all adds up, if unrestrained. By limiting turnovers, the Wildcats can play their style of game.

“If you turn the ball over, then they get going,” Carmody said. “Last night, we were able to get back, so they got very few transition baskets, whereas in the Iowa and Minnesota games, they had run outs. I just think eliminating turnovers is really important.”

In theory, using the tempo-controlling tactics of the second half of the Illinois win is a fundamentally sound gameplan for the Hoosiers. It’s different when you’re dealing with one of the five most efficient offenses in the country, which features two bona fide All-American anchors in center Cody Zeller and swingman Victor Oladipo, plus a stable of lethal shooters surround them on the perimeter.

The Hoosiers take Illinois’ inclination for speed and ratchet it up to devastating effect. Northwestern enters with a positive mindset, and a carbon copy plan of attack for how to thwart Indiana’s prodigious offense.

That’s a good place to start. The next step – implementing that plan – is the most difficult.