by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
EVANSTON, Ill – The point totals were an identical 41, the finality similarly well-determined. Two minutes after the opening tip, Wisconsin big man Jared Berggren canned an open jumper to conclude a possession that included two offensive rebounds. From then on, the final outcome was never in doubt -- much like Sunday night's demolition against Illinois. It didn’t take long Wednesday night to realize Northwestern was on the cusp of enduring another Big Ten beatdown at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“It didn’t seem much different to me than the other night against Illinois,” coach Bill Carmody said following a 69-41 loss.
That much was obvious. The Wildcats were swiftly blitzed by Wisconsin’s ruthlessly efficient offense and disciplined defense. The Badgers took away Northwestern’s trademark Princeton back cuts, denied low-post actions off screen-and-rolls and forced the Wildcats to knock down long-range shots.
Those shots, as the final score makes abundantly clear, did not fall. Over 40 minutes, the Wildcats hit just 15 of 51 shot attempts, and only eight of 24 from beyond the arc. Wisconsin laid out the terms of operation on the defensive end; Northwestern’s handoffs and cuts were not part of the equation. To disrupt the nation’s third-best efficiency defense, the Wildcats would have to turn basketball’s most fickle offensive aim – the three-point shot – into a reliable vehicle for turning possessions into points. They couldn't.
Only Tre Demps and Reggie Hearn, both of whom connected on a whopping two shots from behind the three-point stripe, made more than one three.
“We knew we would have some fairly open mid-range jumpers,” Hearn said. “Other than Dave [Sobolewski] hitting a few, we didn’t really hit those. Those are shots that we practice, shots that we make.”
The poor shooting is hard to ignore. Northwestern didn’t knock down anywhere near as many shots as it needed to hang around with Bo Ryan’s workmanlike group. But those shots – or at least the first attempts – weren’t as easy to blame as what transpired on the boards, where Northwestern was outrebounded by 24. That was, unmistakably, the biggest culprit in another deflating loss.
“What killed us was the backboards, you guys saw that,” Sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski said.
Rebounding issues have plagued Northwestern all season. The Wildcats ranked 303rd nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage entering Wednesday night’s game. And with Jared Swopshire, the Wildcats’ most effective rebounder, sidelined for the rest of the season, those problems will be greatly amplified down the stretch.
With Wisconsin bullying Mike Turner and Nikola Cerina and Alex Olah (The only frontcourt players available) in the paint and bossing the glass for putback after putback, Northwestern’s initial defense – which both Hearn and Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan made sure to mention was “good” – was completely beside the point. You could almost see the deepening frustration on the faces of players as most of Northwestern’s stops lead to Wisconsin second-chance points. The Badgers worked their established size advantage, exerting unrelenting assertiveness and dominating Northwestern’s depleted front line – and there was nothing the Wildcats could do about it.
Ryan assessed his team’s rebounding in the most succinct way possible. “Offensive glass definitely played in our favor,” the Wisconsin coach said while emphasizing the importance of extending possessions off rebounds. Huge offensive rebounding advantages are not standard operating procedure for Wisconsin. Ryan typically instructs his players to turn around and sprint back on defense after missed shots, rather than risk getting beat for an easy layup on the other end.
But strategies are tweaked to exploit opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. The Wildcats, and their rebound-averse big men, necessitated a change of plans. As Northwestern clearly and obviously fell short of matching the Badgers’ intensity on the boards, Ryan ordered his players to hunt their misses and finish upon retrieval.
“Sometimes we’ve sent as many as just one to the glass,” Ryan said. “We had three guys going to the glass, and they were opportunistic.”
Unlike most offensive and defensive problems – poor execution, misguided tactics, delayed transitions, you name it – there is no obvious recourse to improving Northwestern’s inability to rebound. Rebounding is a learned fundamental skill. It cannot be taught or even appreciably corrected over night. Northwestern isn’t a strong rebounding team even at full strength, but losing Swopshire has exacerbated the issue.
“Just seems to me that losing that one guy, Swopshire, shouldn’t have that much of an effect on us,” Carmody. “But it seems like it has.”
Harsh as it may seem, the only solution to enhancing the Wildcats’ board-cleaning ineptitude may be precisely what Northwestern can’t have back: their best rebounder.
The current crop of frontcourt players simply aren’t carrying their end of the bargain. Turner is frequently bullied out of position. Olah can’t leverage his size and long arms into easy boards. And Cerina is still working his way back from an ankle injury. Tonight’s leading rebounder was – just guess – Dave Sobolewski, who finished with five.
“Our rebounding has been anemic,” Carmody said. “I’m not sure of the answer.”
A simple adjustment, one Carmody himself recommended, could include a starter’s role for Cerina. More size should help the Wildcats have more success corralling their own as well as opponent’s misses. But if Ryan’s adjusted rebounding focus taught us anything, it’s that different games demand different personnel and strategic wrinkles. Giving Cerina more playing time (he played just eight minutes tonight) may or may not have helped Northwestern compete on the boards Wednesday night.
Saturday at Purdue, who knows. “It’s something we have to try out,” Carmody said. “But I don’t know how many different options we have at this point.
The cold reality of size and depth disadvantages are difficult to confront. Wisconsin delivered Northwestern a forceful reminder.