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Northwestern zone exposed in sluggish loss to Illinois

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The Wildcats were a step slow, and it made the 2-3 zone look vulnerable.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It had been the story of the past two weeks. It had helped reinvigorate Northwestern, and reignite its season. It had held Penn State to 39 points in 40 minutes, the lowest total by a Northwestern conference opponent since 2005.

But Saturday, Northwestern’s vaunted 2-3 zone crumbled under pressure from Illinois. The Wildcats simply couldn’t keep up with the Illini on defense. They didn’t do much, if anything, right on that end of the floor.

"For whatever reason—maybe it was a bit of fatigue—I thought we were a step slow," Collins said. "Sometime I guess that happens. With our rotations, with our movement, our activity, our cuts, I thought we were just kind of a step slow in everything."

And it certainly showed. Illinois made 9 first-half threes, and 14 overall en route to a 86-60 victory, Northwestern’s heaviest defeat of the season. The Illini scored 1.34 points per possession.

"They were clicking on all cylinders tonight," Collins said of NU’s opponents. "They really moved the ball well, they shared it… For whatever reason, we just weren’t able to match what they brought tonight."

And Collins wasn’t lying. The Illini could do no wrong. All four starting guards scored 14 points or more, and all hit at least 2 threes. All four came ready to play and were seeing a big basket.

But perhaps just as importantly, they were about as well prepared for the zone as they possibly could have been. John Groce’s team moved the ball quickly and crisply. They manufactured a ton of open looks with cross-court skip passes. They had successful possession after possession overloading one side of the floor and making Northwestern guard four men with three.

And whereas Northwestern was a bit hesitant on offense, Illinois was sharp. It was as if they knew exactly what was coming every time down the floor. They would catch and pass in trapping areas before Northwestern could even come with its double teams. And when the traps were a split second slow, they inevitably led to open 3-pointers. Groce and his team found the weak areas of the zone and exploited them.

Collins spoke yesterday about trying to prevent that. "Every game we’ve played, teams have had a few more wrinkles to try to throw against it, and we’ve had to adjust on the fly during the games. Some things have been very successful against it, and we’ve made some adjustments." But Saturday, those adjustments were nowhere to be found.

Perhaps though, this was less about the zone and more about an overall letdown. Northwestern wasn’t focused. It didn’t play with intensity. The players even looked a bit fatigued and labored.

Collins said postgame that he almost expected this to happen at some point.

"I’ve been worried a little bit about fatigue," he said. "Especially with McIntosh a bit. And all the freshmen. It’s that time of year, you’ve really got to get rest. I have been worried. We’ve put a lot into the last couple of weeks to kind of turn our season around, we’ve worked hard. Sometimes it catches up to you."

Saturday, it caught up to Northwestern. Clearly the zone could use a little work. Northwestern wasn’t prepared for what Illinois threw at it. But when players are a step slow in close outs, when they aren’t thinking ahead and anticipating opponents’ movements and passes, a zone can be exposed. It can look dreadful, and incite calls to switch to man.

That was the case at the State Farm Center. Northwestern was thoroughly outplayed. But the Wildcats are committed to the zone. They are going with it for the rest of the season. Saturday shouldn’t erase the four games in which it worked. Sure, Collins might have to introduce a new wrinkle or two, and adjust to what Illinois had success with. But if NU comes out Tuesday and plays with the focus and the energy that it had against Indiana and Penn State, the zone will be just fine.