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Three Keys for Northwestern to Beat Stanford

The Wildcats have hit the road for the first time this season, and tonight will play their first away game of the Chris Collins era. And it’s a big one at that: Northwestern takes on a Stanford squad that many think could be an NCAA Tournament team.

At the very least, it’s probably head coach Johnny Dawkins’ best team since he arrived in Palo Alto in 2008. The Cardinal return 84 percent of last season’s minutes – the only key loss being forward Andy Brown to injury – and forward Dwight Powell is coming off a season when he was named the PAC-12 Most Improved Player.

So the Wildcats will have their work cut out for them. There’s a reason that, depending on where you look, Stanford is favored by double digits. The Cats looked alright on Saturday night against Eastern Illinois, but by no means blew away what has to be considered weak competition. This past Monday, though, Stanford may have been somewhat exposed by a BYU team that pushed the tempo and won in Palo Alto, 112-103.

Taking that game into account, here are three things Northwestern must do tonight to beat the Cardinal:

1. Tempo – Accelerated but Controlled

Collins has been explicit in saying that the way BYU played on Monday is not what his team wants to do, both because pushing the pace isn’t their M.O. and because he believes that would play into Stanford’s hands. And he’s right – the Cardinal favor an up-tempo style, and their superior athleticism would triumph in a game that got out of control.

But with that said, if Northwestern wants to win this game, it’s imperative that the Wildcats push the ball when they get the opportunity. BYU got an astonishingly high number of open shots when they pushed the ball – both off turnovers and off missed shots – and there’s no reason Collins’ team can’t do the same. They must be smart about it – when the aforementioned open shots don’t present themselves, one of the guards must take control and pull the ball out to set up the half-court offense – but if NU’s offense becomes an exclusively half-court attack, its chances to win plummet.

Additionally, playing in transition can mitigate one of Stanford’s big advantages in this matchup: their size. The Cardinal’s starting lineup, 1 through 5, stands 6-foot-2, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7, 6-foot-10, and 6-foot-11. In an up-and-down game, though, this size is neutralized to an extent, and NU’s disadvantage on the boards becomes less meaningful.

2. Defense – Switching Up the Looks

Another way to counteract this size advantage is to switch up the looks on defense. BYU was in and out of a zone all game on Monday, and while their defense wasn’t exceedingly effective – after all, they did give up 103 points in 40 minutes – when they went zone, they disrupted Stanford’s rhythm.

When the Cougars went to a zone, often times only for several possessions at a time, Stanford’s offense became stagnant. They became a jump-shooting team, and a subpar one at that. The Cardinal took 27 three-pointers, and if they take that many tonight, Collins will be ecstatic.

But the main reason Collins must use some zone defense is that on paper, NU can’t matchup individually with Stanford. Alex Olah will guard Stanford center Stefan Nastic, and Dave Sobelewski will guard his former AAU teammate, Stanford guard Chasson Randle – but after that the Cats are in trouble. There is no natural matchup for Powell (6-foot-10), nor for Josh Huestis, who plays bigger than his 6-foot-7 frame. And for that matter, even Sobelewski will probably struggle with Randle.

Granted, basketball is not a 1-on-1 game, and help defense will play a big part, but it can only do so much against a team like the Cardinal. Also, granted, a zone might exacerbate an already troubling vulnerability to offensive rebounds and second chance points. But if I’m Collins, I’ll take my chances with that vulnerability – I’d rather see them having to score at the second or third opportunity than see the ball go through the hoop with regularity at the first.

On Saturday, Northwestern didn’t show any defensive looks other than their half-court man-to-man. On Tuesday at practice, though, Collins made it clear that zone is something they’ve worked on extensively, and that there’s a good chance we see some tonight. How much we see of it, and the timing of when Collins decides to go to it may play a big part in determining the final outcome of the game.

3. Shots – Making Them

It may sound simple -- Northwestern must make shots on Thursday night to win at Stanford – and, well, that’s because it is. There’s no in-depth, hardcore analysis here. The Wildcats have to have one of their better games in terms of shooting to beat what is quite frankly a better team.

On Monday, BYU shot 54 percent from the field, and an impressive 8-15 (53 percent) from beyond the arc. Northwestern must come close to these marks to have a chance at pulling off the upset. There are ways to enhance these percentages – namely good offensive spacing, and effective penetration from the guards (BYU had 23 assists on Monday) – but sometimes, it just comes down to guys making shots they normally miss, or missing shots they normally make. The Wildcats will have to make a good amount of shots in both of those categories if they want to come back to Evanston flaunting a 2-0 record.