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Attacking the Trap: A New Wrinkle to Northwestern's Offense

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Elon tried to trap Northwestern's ball-handlers in the back court and kept the Wildcats' offense off balance.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The vibe has changed surrounding Northwestern's 2014-15 season. It happened in two games. The first, a two-point win over North Florida and the second, a one-point overtime win over Elon. The Wildcats struggled in both games. They often looked lost on defense and scattered and disorganized on offense. The spacing wasn't there. The pick-and-rolls weren't working as effectively as they had. Bryant McIntosh made some freshman-point-guard-esque mistakes. Alex Olah looked slow on defense and lacked confidence on offense.

North Florida went small and used athleticism and creative ball-handlers to attack Northwestern inside. Eventually, Chris Collins countered and went small with either Gavin Skelly or Sanjay Lumpkin at the five. With those lineups, the Wildcats were able to eek out a victory.

Against Elon, though, the Wildcats were up against a schematic difference that they hadn't faced. And for most of the game, it was Elon's defense of Northwestern's pick-and-roll that kept the Wildcats from using their bread-and-butter set effectively.

Elon countered Northwestern's pick-and-rolls by trapping the ball-handler after the coming around the screen. And it led to a bunch of turnovers and frustration that took Northwestern out of any offensive rhythm.

PR-trap-bad

After JerShon Cobb uses Alex Olah's screen, Elon's defenders immediately blitz Cobb and trapping him out near mid-court. The biggest fault here is Olah just turning and sprinting toward the rim. He leaves Cobb all alone and unable to do anything. Luckily, Cobb is able to lob a dangerous pass to Vic Law in the corner to escape the trap.

Whether it was Cobb, McIntosh, Tre Demps or another ball-handler, Northwestern often seemed confused and disgruntled when facing this blitzing scheme.

When that happens, the screener needs to become available as an outlet for the ball-handler.

There were also times when Northwestern was able to work an advantage, both on the perimeter and by getting into the paint.

perimeter-movement-trap

Here, Olah makes the right play. He doesn't leave McIntosh alone on the perimeter to face two Elon defenders. Instead, he pops instead of rolls and makes himself available to McIntosh. He makes the right move, pushing the ball across the perimeter to Cobb where makes the extra pass to find an open Law in the corner. That was an encouraging sign for the Wildcats early in the contest.

Later in the game, Northwestern was able to work the high post to use the four-on-three advantage inside.

vassar-olah-law-trap

Olah, again, pops instead of rolls, allowing an avenue for Johnnie Vassar to escape the trap. Once Olah gets the ball, Vic Law ducks to the rim and Olah makes a decisive pass to find him.

Those last two plays are how you beat a trapping scheme like Elon's.

In previous games, it was better for McIntosh and other ball-handlers to keep their dribble alive and look for various options coming off the ball screen. But when facing a defense like Elon's, being able to retreat, see the floor and attack when the offense has the advantage is imperative. The Wildcats struggled for much of the game when trying to do this, but showed some flashes of good offense.