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Northwestern Loses The Physical Battle Badly Against Purdue

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. — There's a lot of skill involved in basketball. A lot of technique that goes into something like shooting. Northwestern clearly lacked that on Sunday night against Purdue, as it hit just 16-of-56 from the field and 4-of-18 from behind the arc. Of greater concern is that a depleted Wildcats squad looked dilapidated against the Boilermakers.

First, you take into account that nearly all of Northwestern's three-point attempts clanged off of the front rim. It's as if the Wildcats have run out of strength toward the tail end of the Big Ten season. Then, you watch Tre Demps struggling down the court, clearly exhausted after taking the onus and driving all game long. Similarly, Reggie Hearn failed to close out on a Purdue three-point attempt, perhaps exhausted from his role in the offense. In the olden days, Northwestern would stall out the clock to at least give itself a chance against more athletic, well-stocked opponents. These days, Kale Abrahamson, Tre Demps or Alex Marcotullio fire up an instant shot, forcing the Wildcats to play defense 10 seconds after finishing their previous defensive set.

With the lineup the Wildcats are trotting out these days, losing doesn't come as a surprise — getting mauled does.

Take one particularly bad sequence from Sunday's game, when on the defensive end, Alex Marcotullio got bowled over en route to a layup, and on the offensive end, Alex Olah feebly tossed up an instant layup attempt. Such instances were rife at Mackey Arena. A.J. Hammons, a physical beast unlike any Northwestern possesses, received the ball in the post on one play, whirled around with ease and kissed a shot off the glass. A defender was directly on him, but who really cared?

The Wildcats used to gut it out through injury-tarnished seasons like this one, but the defense simply isn't there this year. Terone Johnson had Reggie Hearn — and any other Northwestern defender who dared to guard him — absolutely beat off the dribble time after time, forcing the defense to draw inwards. Johnson would finish the night with a game-high 22 points.

"We just couldn't contain Terone Johnson and his brother," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "They just took it to the bucket, almost at will."

With Johnson cruising to the hoop and raining down floaters on the Wildcats, the defense contracted inwards, leaving D.J. Byrd wide open behind the arc. As they've done all season, dead-red three-point shooters have been able to go to work against Northwestern, seemingly uncontested. Byrd hit 2-of-3 from behind the arc; Terone Johnson was even better knocking down 4-of-5. Of Purdue's seven made three-pointers, perhaps one came with a hand in the face. For the most part, Purdue had openings all night long, allowing them to shoot 52.9 percent from the field as well.

It's become increasingly clear that Northwestern lacks a lock-down defender. Competent defenders, for that matter, are at a premium these days. It's one thing if A.J. Hammons gets past the defense, but even backup forward Sandi Marcius had his way with Alex Olah and Mike Turner, repeatedly backing them down and posting up successfully against the Northwestern defense. Turner, for his part, spent a good deal of his night struggling through screens at the top of the key.

"You can't let them get the ball so deep," Carmody said. "I think that's the first thing. There's a sweet spot they get it at, and it's like one dribble into their favorite move. You tell them that guy's always going over this shoulder, and you have to understand it. If you can push them out eight feet from the basket instead of five feet, that's a significant difference."

Most of Purdue's points came from Terone Johnson Sunday night, with Sandi Marcius and A.J. Hammons combining for just 10 points. Still, seven of their ten points came in the opening minutes, allowing the Boilermakers to take an emphatic 22-7 lead, and freeing up the rest of their players for open three-pointers. Their importance, whether it was Marcius' game-opening jump shot or Hammons' authoritative whirl-around bank shot, cannot be underestimated.

"It shrinks the defense," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "If you can get the basketball inside, it always helps to be able to play inside-outside. To be able to get an inside presence with both of those guys always helps us, but especially against the zone, because then they got to worry about those guys."

Perhaps the most embarrassing play was when Alex Olah, or was it Mike Turner, seemed absolutely terrified of the ball as it deflected off of the front rim. Purdue cast an eager eye on the hoop. Northwestern backed away.