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Rebounding Woes Haunt Northwestern In 67-59 Loss To Indiana

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

EVANSTON, Ill -- Over and Over again, like a broken record, Bill Carmody repeated the most pressing concern following Northwestern’s eight-point loss to Indiana Sunday. It is a self-evident basketball truism that extra shot opportunities increases scoring probability, and that rebounding is the best way to maximize such opportunities. Northwestern was dominated on the glass, and Carmody knew it.

“They were punishing us on the backboards,” he said. “They were productive getting offensive rebounds and tip-ins; second shots. I thought our defense was pretty good but you have to get them off the glass.”

This is not a new problem for the Wildcats. Entering Sunday, they ranked 295th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and 216th on defense. For context, those ranks fall 11th and 12th, respectively, amongst Big Ten teams. The Hoosiers, meanwhile, rank second in OR percentage and ninth in DR.

The better rebounding team controlled the glass Sunday, winning the rebounding margin by 12 (36-24), with center Cody Zeller accounting for 13 boards on his own. There are teams that, for strategic reasons, purposefully eschew offensive rebounds to race back and defend in the half court. The jump start helps teams set up shop more quickly on the other side of the court, even if there’s a great risk that valuable second-chance points go by the wayside as natural strategic casualties.

In certain situations, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody counsels his team to race back defensively, rather than throw players at the hoop in wasted attempts at offensive rebounds. On Sunday, Carmody expressed genuine dismay at his team’s lack of effort on the defensive glass.

Asked about the Wildcats’ defensive execution against a high-powered IU offense, Carmody narrowed the topic at hand, preferring instead to delve into Sunday’s biggest lament. “What bothers me is the rebounding.” Generally, Northwestern is not an excellent rebounding team, and their efficiency profile reflects that. What Carmody’s statement reflected was not so much a collective problem as an individual one. “Our two centers had only one rebound between them, and that’s scary,” he said. “They play, say, 35 minutes and only get one rebound. That’s just not acceptable.”

The players at fault, Alex Olah and Mike Turner, were accurately and rightfully berated by their head coach. Indiana features one of the most skilled frontcourt players in the country in Zeller, a proactive rim-crashing wing in Victor Oladipo and a rangy four-man, Christian Watford, who attacks the boards defensively better than most power forwards in the country. The Wildcats were never expected to match Indiana board-for-board. Competing, or at least obstructing Indiana’s rebounding efforts, was a baseline requirement for victory. Instead, Olah and Turner allowed Zeller and co. to control the painted area, establish perfect positioning under the hoop and block out Wildcat defenders to clear space.

As cumbersome and tricky as Northwestern’s zone defense can be, teams are going to get their shots up. And if the Wildcats can’t gobble up those misses, then defensive effort becomes futile, possessions turn into minutes-long slogs and opponents reap the benefits of easy points from point-black distance.

It’s a vicious cycle that Northwestern hoped to address this season with a bigger, deeper frontcourt. Freshman Olah was expected to provide immediate assistance on the glass. Transfer Jared Swopshire was another piece. Redshirt freshman Mike Turner, while undersized, could do his part.

To date the Wildcats haven’t improved much at all in the rebounding realm. Their offensive and defensive percentages are better than last season’s dreadful marks – 319th and 327th, respectively – but in this year's rugged Big Ten, where teams roll out length and size and athleticism in droves, those numbers need to improve even more.

That was painfully apparent Sunday, and it will remain a constant drag on Northwestern’s ability to win conference games the rest of the season.