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Inside (this version of) the Chris Collins offense at Northwestern

If Northwestern's exhibition win over McKendree taught us anything, it's that Chris Collins' offense already has more wrinkles than it did last season.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

"I've always kind of been a coach to use the guys I have with that given team and try to devise a way to play." - Chris Collins

It's probably a common psychological phenomenon for the views of old ways to become negatively distorted when new ones are adopted. As has been the case with Northwestern basketball. Northwestern went from a low-possession team with a focus on efficiency on the offensive end to an even lower-possession team with a focus on tenacity on the defensive end. Sometime during the transition from Bill Carmody to Chris Collins, it was Collins' ball-screen centric, fastbreaking offense that became a refreshing sight while Carmody's Princeton offense fell out of favor quickly.

A lot of this, I'm convinced, is due to misconceptions about Carmody's scheme. For some reason, it's commonplace to view the Princeton as a gimmicky series of backcuts and dribble handoffs. Sure those are two aspects of a Princeton style, but in no way is that all the Princeton is and especially not Carmody's system. Ohio State's Thad Matta said he had one of "the best offensive mind[s] of any coach I've ever seen in my life."

Northwestern ran a really good offense under Carmody, one that put players into positions to succeed. And through much of Collins' inaugural season as Northwestern's head coach, it seemed as though he chose to leave any remnants of the offense behind. And frankly, it returned some pretty disastrous results. Last season, Northwestern averaged just 1.67 possessions per game in Big Ten where the final ball-handler received the ball due to a cut, according to That was the fewest of any offensive play type.

While Collins' motion-based offense may not naturally allow for some of the actions Carmody so often ran, many Princeton principles are just good fundamental basketball concepts. The Cleveland Cavaliers' David Blatt, a coach who has been known to deploy many aspects of the Princeton style to his teams, spoke to Grantland's Zach Lowe about this:

In the full Princeton, there are no plays. Well, there are plays, but there are not called plays. According to the movement of the ball, and the movement of the center, you're gonna get into certain sets that you read according to how the defense plays you.

That's the part of the Princeton offense you can see in my teams - the reading and the multi-option possibilities off of any play. The Princeton offense is something that takes a long time to develop. It requires a particular kind of player, and more than anything else, it requires the giving up on the part of all the players of almost everything they know.

But elements of the Princeton offense, in my mind -- they are the right way to play.

Ahead of his second season, it seems that Collins is becoming more willing to install Princeton concepts within his offense, using much of the same thinking as Blatt.

"Even last year, though we struggled... [and] even though we're not like a strict Princeton, I respect it," Collins said at a preseason practice. "There's a lot of good actions out of the Princeton and these guys are good out of those specific actions. There's a number of things we do within our offense that have Princeton concepts with spacing, with backcuts, things like that. I'd be foolish not to use some of that, especially with the veterans because they know it so well."

Players like Dave Sobolewski, Tre Demps and Alex Olah, especially, have particular skills that translate well to the Princeton offense. All three players are especially good at reading the defense without the ball.

During Northwestern's 102-52 exhibition win over Division-II McKendree, Collins showcased a lot of Princeton-like sets that seem to do a much better job of putting certain players in positions where they are more likely to succeed.

One of the most simple Princeton actions is a read-and-react play and Sobolewski and Demps ran it to perfection:


In that particular play, Sobolewski's and Demps' ability to read the off-ball defender make the play work. While Sobolewski uses a ball screen (a staple of Collins' offense) to drive toward Demps, Demps has to read the way his defender is playing the situation. If his man is too low, Demps will cut toward Sobolewski to receive a hand off. But Demps' man was playing too high and he made the correct read to dart toward the rim where Sobolewski hit him for an easy layup.

This is definitely a built-in option for Northwestern and one that combines aspects of the Princeton with Collins' scheme.

There were another couple of instances in the second half (that occurred just three minutes apart) where Northwestern capitalized using backcuts and misdirection:



In both cases, center Jeremiah Kreisberg was the player making the pass from near the three-point arc. In the Princeton, the offense runs through the big man at the top of the key. He acts as both a safety valve and a playmaker in the offense. Also, playing the big man out of the high post allows for more freedom inside the paint for cutting. Kreisberg's ability to pass out of the high post gives Collins a lot of options, including give-and-go plays that capitalize on opposing guards' overzealous defense.

The most interesting thread that links these few plays is that the lineups in each of them were pretty consistent. Each one had Sobolewski as the leading ball-handler with Demps alongside him. Also, JerShon Cobb, Bryant McIntosh and Alex Olah weren't on the floor for any of those plays. It was clear that Collins is making more of a conscious effort to tailor his offensive philosophy not only to his team as a whole, but to the individual units he puts on the floor.

"I've always kind of been a coach to use the guys I have with that given team and try to devise a way to play," Collins said following the exhibition game.

Following two standout years under Carmody, Sobolewski really struggled adjusting to Collins' style of play and saw his effectiveness and playing time drop way down. From the outset, it seems like Sobolewski will not be relied upon to be the team's leading ball-handler and because of that, Collins can find ways to use Sobolewski in a role more similar to the one he played as a freshman and sophomore; one more suitable to his ability to read and react to defenses.

But while Northwestern showed a few nice wrinkles with the second unit, the biggest development was the Wildcats' use of the pick-and-roll. The star of the game was undoubtedly McIntosh, a freshman guard from Greensburg, Indiana, who ran Collins' offense impeccably to the tune of 15 points, 11 assists and just two turnovers.

Throughout the game, McIntosh was constantly in the pick-and-roll, a position he thrived in as a high school player.

"Any time it was a close game in the fourth quarter, that's kind of what we went to," he said about his high school days. "We just kind of spread the floor and just ball screened for me and just kind of let me make the basketball play that we needed."

On a pretty consistent basis, McIntosh looked under control when coming around ball screens, showing a plethora of capabilities including hitting the screener in stride, getting into the lane for a floater and pulling up near the free-throw line for an easy jumper:




After talking to both Collins and McIntosh, it's clear that the way Northwestern wants its ball-handlers to come around screens is with an eye toward how the on-ball defender and the screener's defender are playing the pick-and-roll before keying on where the help defense is coming from.

"Initially, in the pick-and-roll, you want to see how are the guys guarding it in the pick-and-roll," Collins said. "Are they going under? Are they trapping you? Are they hard hedging? And then, once you make that initial read, you have to read what the help-side defenders are doing because, if run correctly, then the defense has to give something up if you do a good job. Whether it's the drive, whether it's the kick, whether it's a dump-off to a big man, just over and over those repetitions and seeing it on film, doing it on the court you learn what's available and what the right reads are."

It's one thing for McIntosh to make routine plays time and again as that would be a huge development for Northwestern in itself, but what makes the freshman so special is his ability to be creative out of the pick-and-roll.

McIntosh says that the two players he models his game after are Goran Dragic of the Phoenix Suns and Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. Both players, he says, are extremely creative offensively and have so many ways to attack a defense.

And while watching McIntosh play, it's easy to spot a little bit of both NBA players' influences on his game.

Like Curry, McIntosh has developed a nasty hesitation move where he moves his eyes toward the rim while maintaining his dribble:

mcintosh hesitation

And like Dragic, McIntosh has an uncanny ability to make defenders look silly as they over commit on playing him toward the screen, only to see him make a move back away from the screen and dribble by:


McIntosh's ability to run the pick-and-roll gives Northwestern a ton of new opportunities on offense. As evidenced by the clip above, his ability to knife into the lane creates open looks for three-point shooters. While Sanjay Lumpkin isn't the team's best shooter by any stretch of the imagination, getting more open corner threes will payoff for the Wildcats.

Last season, Tre Demps was forced to often be Northwestern's primary scorer and had the ball in his hands a lot. While he did perform well at times, the analytics show that Demps is better suited to play off the ball and shoot more spot-up shots as opposed to shots off of the dribble.


Tre Demps' 2013-14 hex bin shot chart via

Demps was remarkably efficient from the corners last season and his chances should inevitably rise through McIntosh's ability to drive and kick.

Northwestern also ran a few really interesting actions that achieved the same fundamental goals as a traditional pick-and-roll.

For example, Northwestern ran a couple plays where McIntosh would receive a ball screen from one player, but the roll would be performed by another player who had just received an off-ball screen:


Even though McIntosh receives the screen from Lumpkin, Vic Law sets a screen for Olah, who was stationed at the weakside elbow. Olah then cuts through the lane, following essentially the same path that a traditional roll man would have except with less lane clutter. This allows Olah to establish a solid base in the post.

The fact that Northwestern ran this play as its first set of the game is also telling. Just like football coaches like to script their better plays early in a game to make an offense comfortable, Collins deliberately chose to run this action out of the gate. It's a really interesting and creative way to get Olah the ball in the post while also giving the look of a pick-and-roll set. The Wildcats actually ran this same play a few more times in the game and were very successful.

Another deconstructed pick-and-roll of sorts came later in the second half:


This is a really, really great set. As Kreisberg sets a ball screen for walk-on Nick Segura on the left side of the floor, McKendree's defense reacts and quickly shifts toward the left side. But Segura quickly swings the ball to forward Gavin Skelly at the top of the key, who drags his man out from the lane, and the defense then has to shift back to the right side of the floor with the movement of the ball. While that's going on, Kreisberg is still making his roll and Skelly hits him with a beautiful bullet pass for the easy layup with no one around. Throughout the season, it will be really interesting to see how Collins and his staff are able to add more and more layers to Northwestern's pick-and-roll-centric attack.

In his second season, Collins has a better understanding of what his players' strengths are and if the exhibition win over McKendree is any indication, he seems to have devised an offensive attack that suits his players well.