When Northwestern traded Bill Carmody for Chris Collins, they traded offense for defense. That was the narrative, anyways. Sure this team couldn't shoot, but they were gritty, scrappy and aggressive.
That all sounds great when you're trying to build a program, but there was one problem: it wasn't really true. While the Wildcats' defensive numbers looked slightly improved from last season, they had struggled mightily against KenPom top 100 teams and played a slow tempo that made the defensive stats look a little better than they were. In the most recent loss, NU gave up 93 points and a whopping 1.321 points per possession to Iowa. So NU may have passed your defensive "eye test," but the substance wasn't there to back it up.
But in Sunday's 49-43 win over No. 23 Illinois, the Wildcat defense finally lived up to its billing against a quality opponent.
Sure, Illinois may have shot poorly, but this was an impressive defensive effort any way you cut it. They Wildcats, who rank 63rd nationally in three-point defense, held Illinois to 4-19 from beyond the arc and ultimately held the Illini to .736 points per possession — for the tempo-free newbies out there, that's very good.
The Wildcats played tight defense from the very beginning, closing out on threes, switching between man and zone and swarming toward the basket for rebounds. The offense is going to struggle this year — it certainly did even in Sunday's win — but if the defense comes through like that, NU is going to have a chance to steal a couple more Big Ten games before the season is over.
But this is a transition year, and as much as the Wildcats say the goal is still to make some noise this season, all anyone really wants to talk about is the future. And the best thing Chris Collins' team can do this year is develop positively for the years to come. Considering tonight's two most notable defenders — center Alex Olah and guard Tre Demps — were two of the team's worst defenders last season.
Olah's sophomore jump has been perhaps the biggest positive from this season. However, most of the improvement has come on the offensive end. His post moves and his scoring efficiency have both improved a lot from last season, but his defense and rebounding still need work. Sunday's performance might be a sign of things to come. Olah was extremely active on the defensive end, grabbing seven rebounds and altering shots from the Illini guards. He also took a crucial charge at the end of the game.
"All they were doing was putting Alex Olah in the pick-and-roll, and I'll tell you, he was the unsung hero," Chris Collins said. "He stayed in front of their guards the whole game. He made them take tough shots over the top of him."
Last year, Olah was awkward on the defensive end. He struggled to get into position, and even when he did have position, he didn't move well enough to be effective. This year, after losing weight in the offseason, he's much more comfortable moving around the court. The payoff has been evident on the offensive end all season, but not it's starting to come defensively, as well. If Olah can consistently defend like he did Sunday night, NU will have a legitimate Big Ten center for two more years. When's the last time you heard that?
Defense was also the story — well, at least part of the story — for the smallest Wildcat on the floor. Tre Demps will get a lot of praise for this three triples to help NU weather an Illinois run, but even when he struggled to make shots in the first half, his defensive energy was better than, well, maybe ever. He pulled down 8 rebounds and was disruptive as an on-ball defender. Not bad for a guy who was a defensive liability last season.
NU isn't built to win a shootout, and given the talent level and the adjustment under Collins, it isn't built to win many Big Ten games. But if the Wildcats play defense like they did Sunday night, there might be a few wins left on the schedule. And in a season so focused on the future, sophomores Olah and Demps provided hope that defensive performances like this one — so rare at NU — could eventually become the norm, not the exception.