Heading into Saturday's match-up with Western Michigan, Northwestern must have known the 3-point shot was one of the Broncos' greatest assets. The 38.8 percent clip at which the Broncos made shots from deep Saturday actually brought their season percentage down to 41.2, which ranks 16th nationally. Yet NU looked rather unprepared defensively for WMU's offensive scheme.
The Broncos put Northwestern in an 11-2 hole behind three relatively uncontested deep balls in the first five minutes. Luckily for Northwestern, they were able to crawl back from the deficit this time and get a victory. The Wildcats made some adjustments and held WMU to just 61 points, but they made a lot of glaring mistakes, especially in their defensive rotations.
Northwestern often gets beat off the dribble, not just against WMU but in general, and sometimes they struggle defending the pick-and-roll. Those two deficiencies lead to a lot of double teams on the drive and in the post, which frees up outside shooters. Western Michigan exploited those areas pretty well and knew when to swing the ball.
Right out of the gate, the Broncos found wide-open three-pointers. After entering the ball to the post, Bryant McIntosh elects to help Alex Olah with a double team. Drake LaMont sees the double coming and kicks the ball out. Vic Law rotates over to the ball, but Sanjay Lumpkin stays on his man on the block, leaving Tucker Haymond wide open for three.
In this case, the solution is fairly simple. Lumpkin needed to spring out to Haymond in the corner, and McIntosh could rotate down to the man on the block. Or McIntosh could simply not double team, since Olah should be able to guard the 6-foot-6 LaMont on a back-to-the-basket post-up.
The rotation isn't as easy in this situation. Connor Tava gets space slipping off the on-ball screen, and he drives to the hoop, forcing Vic Law to help. On the drive, every Wildcat turns and faces the ball, not a good situation to be in. McIntosh does a good job blocking out the weak-side cutter, but Olah isn't going to step out on McIntosh's man, who is now wide open for a three that the WMU bench knew was going in.
Although Olah could have rotated, the mismatch probably would have led to a bucket in some form anyway. Oftentimes Northwestern is going to have to help, like here, but on post-ups they should probably be more selective with their double teams, especially against teams like WMU. The Broncos got a lot of open three-point looks due to poor rotation.
Last season Northwestern prided itself on defense. Defense won them games, and rotation and recovery were arguably the strongest aspects of their game. However, last year's team didn't hit their stride until mid-January. It's understandable that NU is experiencing some growing pains and coordination issues, especially since they have five freshmen playing. One of the first things they need to improve on though is communication.
Guarded by Scottie Lindsey, Kellen McCormick sets an on-ball screen on Dave Sobolewski. Sobolewski's man, Thomas Wilder, leans in like he might use the screen, Sobo raises his arm and Lindsey steps up to switch onto Wilder. Lindsey quickly realizes Sobolewski is still intent on guarding Wilder, and McCormick is wide open for an easy backdoor lay-up after the ball reversal. This is one of those blunders that just shouldn't happen, and simple communication could eliminate.
Earlier in the game, Tre Demps got beat on an off-ball screen for an and-one. Demps's man, David Brown, swings the ball and runs off a backdoor screen. Demps doesn't really see the screen coming, and Nate Taphorn stays on the screener instead of switching or helping. By the time Brown gets the ball in the post, it's too late for Demps to recover, and the play results in a basket and a foul. Again, the lack of communication leads to easy points.
It's the little things that are hurting Northwestern right now. They aren't communicating, and they aren't rotating well, which is a bad combo when they're putting less than 70 points on the board -- as they have in all but one game so far this year. As the season rolls along, the Wildcats are bound to improve in those areas. NU wants the progress to come sooner rather than later though because they won't get away with the same mistakes against Big Ten teams.