by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
One week ago, Northwestern came away from an ugly 20-point loss to Iowa with all kinds of offensive and defensive issues to figure out. The offensive struggles – the Wildcats scored just 0.77 points per trip and hit 5-of-26 threes – were more glaring than the defensive ones, but that’s only a complement in relative terms. Make no mistake, the game was an utter disaster. Northwestern was left searching for answers. What the Wildcats did Thursday night in Champaign didn’t solve all of their problems, but it did remove some of taste from the early part of the Big Ten season. Key players stepped up in big spots. Jared Swopshire came to life on the offensive end. Alex Marcotullio’s three-point stroke, dormant for much of this season, magically reappeared. Reggie Hearn was active on both ends of the floor and played his most efficient offensive game of the season.
These are all good things. Here comes the fun part. Northwestern must take the positives from Thursday night’s win and come up with a way to stop one of the nation’s best offenses and one of its most improved defenses. Indiana its first home loss of the season Wednesday night to Wisconsin in a game of extreme tempo contrast. The Badgers took their unnervingly slow style and unleashed it on the Hoosiers' high-paced attack. It worked, and Northwestern learned a few things from Wisconsin's gameplan. The chances of an upset are remote, to be sure, but Indiana is not unbeatable. And if you’re searching for shards of optimism, look no further than last season’s upset of Michigan State, in which Northwestern wore black uniforms. On Sunday, the Wildcats will again sport their black threads. So there’s that.
Three Players To Watch
Cody Zeller (sophomore, center)
There are a handful of reasons why Zeller the best frontcourt player in the country. For one, his scoring touch and versatility in the post is unrivaled. He can seal off his man and manufacture a shot while backing down. He can face up for a mid-range jumper, dish to an open cutter, or flare out for a quick screen-and-roll. And that’s without mentioning any of the physical tools that make the 7-foot Zeller the eye candy of numerous lottery-bound NBA front offices.
Not only is he tall, long and athletic, Zeller is also one of the quickest and stealthily explosive big men in the game. When Indiana corrals defensive rebounds, you’ll often find Zeller streaking down the floor to get on the end of long passes for easy layups. Zeller’s defensive rebounding needs a little work – he grabs 18.5 percent of opponent’s misses, good for 306th in the country – but whatever he lacks in glass-cleaning effectiveness he more than makes up for in offensive stimulation. Simply put, he is one of the best players in the country.
Victor Oladipo (junior, guard)
As talented and physically gifted as Zeller is, Oladipo is the biggest reason why Indiana has morphed from a dangerous high-scoring team last season to a legitimate Final Four threat this season. Indiana’s transformation coincided with an even greater individual transformation for Oladipo. Over the past two years, Oladipo has gone from high-energy bench guy to defensive specialist to All American-caliber star. He’s maintained the lockdown defensive work that endeared him to fans earlier in his career while adding new elements to his offensive game.
Most of his shot come from inside the arc (107, compared to just 26 threes to date), and he’s converting them more efficiently than all but two players in the country. His offensive strengths are lane penetration and aggressive back cuts, but Oladipo won’t shy away from the occasional pull-up or mid-range jumper. If there’s one word you can use to describe Oldadipo, it’s energy. That’s what the dude is: he never stops.
Jordan Hulls (senior, guard)
Leave Hulls open at your own peril. The senior guard has converted more than half of his three-point attempts to date. By contrast, Hulls makes just 47 percent of his twos. Those percentages make the cost-benefit analysis of long-range shooting one an easy dilemma for Hulls; he shoots a lot of threes, and he’s become a more efficient offensive player because of it. Last season, he finished the year with nearly as many two-point attempts (138) as threes (146).
This year, Hulls is focusing on what he does best by attempting almost twice as many threes as twos. His offensive rating, a catch-all tempo free metric that gauges point produced per 100 possessions, has shot up more than 13 points, an increase born of specialty maximization and efficient shot selection. Hulls knows his best asset and he’s using that singular skill to elevate Indiana’s offense.
Key Matchup: Alex Olah vs. Cody Zeller
In the first half of Indiana’s loss to Wisconsin, when Wisconsin decided to ask Jared Berggren to match Zeller straight up in the post, Indiana’s star center dropped an easy 18 points on eight shots. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan admitted at halftime to overextending his defense, namely to collapse on IU’s three-point shooters, which created space for Zeller on the interior. In the second half, the Badgers doubled Zeller, the same low post feeds and easy layups weren’t there, and Zeller scored just five more points the rest of the game. Alex Olah cannot guard Cody Zeller one-on-one in the post. Few can. What he can do is stand in the low post, and frustrate Zeller – depending on which defensive alignment coach Bill Carmody elects to go with (man, 1-3-1 zone, etc.) – to the point where the Wildcats are not forced to double him on every possession.
There is an obvious benefit to doubling Zeller. It marshals added manpower to account for the strength, quickness and skill of one of the most difficult post guards in the country. The downside is it frees up Indiana’s shooters on the perimeter, the Hullses and Will Sheeheys and Christian Watfords of the world, all of whom help comprise the nation’s sixth best three-point shooting outfit (31.2 percent). If the Wildcats overcommit to Zeller, and Indiana finds its shooting groove, this game could get out of hand sooner than later. Northwestern needs to find an effective way to both limit Zeller’s post touches and maintain steady perimeter ball pressure. It’s a difficult balancing act to strike when you’re trying to devise ways to stop a top-five level offense. Olah can play his best defensive game of the season, and the Hoosiers could suffer their worst shooting night of the season, and it still might not be enough.