At the end of regulation Sunday, Northwestern was shooting right around 55 percent from the field (25-46) and from three-point range (11-20) against Michigan State. The Wildcats were beat in almost every other statistical category, but their efficiency shooting the basketball was incredible.
Northwestern's offensive boost resulted from a multitude of factors. The Spartans played rather poor interior and perimeter defense, Nathan Taphorn and JerShon Cobb both had hot hands and Chris Collins drew up a solid gameplan.
Collins mixed up his offensive sets and worked in a variety of off-ball and on-ball screens. Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps used the pick-and-rolls well and got to the rim at an extremely high rate. Sometimes though, all it took was a UCLA cut for NU to get a lay-up.
Northwestern starts off in a four-high set with everyone, except McIntosh, at the free throw line extended. McIntosh dishes to Cobb on the left wing and proceeds to cut off a ball-side screen from Olah. Gavin Schilling, who's guarding Olah, doesn't help, so McIntosh gets fouled from behind by Tum Tum Nairn when he rises for the lay-up.
It's a really simple play, but Northwestern got a handful of buckets off it Sunday. It works well for NU because many opponents feel the need to respect Olah's three-point shot, and thus his defender cannot drop to block the cutter. Even when Olah's man switches, the Wildcats will usually have a mismatch they can exploit.
Instead of a four-high set, Northwestern starts this play with Demps and Olah running a pick-and-roll at the top of the key and a man standing in the each corner, another common formation used by the Wildcats. Olah slips the screen and sets a weak-side screen for Vic Law, who just left a screen he set for Sanjay Lumpkin in the corner. Law collects a pass from Demps at the elbow, jump stops in the lane and finishes with a floater.
Law got a pretty good look from the off-ball pick, but Alex Olah was wide open on the roll and waved his hands around calling for the ball as Law drove to the hoop. Given the less than satisfactory performance Law has had shooting from outside this season, this is exactly the kind of play Collins should run to get him more involved in the offense.
There had been flashes of off-ball screen success throughout the season for NU, but it had been a while since McIntosh and Demps got to the hole using on-ball screens like they did Sunday. The duo combined for 35 points, and a good chunk of those points came off lay-ups and free throws.
Here, Northwestern sets up again with a high pick-and-roll and a man in each corner. Travis Trice is slow getting around the screen, and Matt Costello does a poor job hedging. Having already given McIntosh several easy lay-ups, MSU knows they have to adjust to the penetration by committing weak-side help. Marvin Clark Jr. slides over, leaving Taphorn wide open in the corner for three.
The success of the high ball screen was partly due to the Spartans' mediocre defense, but credit Olah and McIntosh for the coordination they have in the pick-and-roll. McIntosh and Demps showed great vision as well, whether it was finding an open man or taking it to the hole when they saw space.
Late in the game, Northwestern went to a similar set with a man in each corner and a double high screen with Olah and Lumpkin. McIntosh uses the screen and Costello is forced to switch off Olah while Trice recovers. Branden Dawson stays on Lumpkin, and Olah cuts into the lane for an easy lay-up, giving NU a 70-68 with just minutes remaining.
Notice this play started with about 20 seconds left on the shot clock. On the ensuing possession and during the rest of regulation, Northwestern elected to run the shot clock down to 10-12 seconds before starting a play.
On NU's very next possession, they go with essentially the exact same set and play. This time Dawson hedges well and has no trouble recovering on Lumpkin. As the shot clock dwindles down, Northwestern is forced to scramble for a shot, which ends up being a long three from Tre Demps.
Northwestern would collect the offensive rebound and repeat a similar process three times over without getting a shot to fall. With how much success the Wildcats were having using off-ball screens and cutting action, it's hard to explain why Collins elected to go isolation in the final moments. Obviously, there's a small risk of turning the ball over, but the increased likelihood of getting a good look outweighs that risk.
On the whole, Northwestern played a great game offensively. The success off the high pick-and-roll and off-ball screens was a strong sign of improvement. As Big Ten play heats up, NU will definitely need to maintain the improved offensive output.