While it was much closer than expected, Maryland's 64-61 win over Nebraska was huge for Northwestern. The loss was Nebraska's 13th in Big Ten play, meaning Nebraska finished in 13th place in the final conference standings and locking Northwestern into the 10th spot. The bottom four teams in the Big Ten are forced to play an extra round in the conference tournament, and Northwestern's late-season resurgence and climb (lol) to 10th guaranteed them a bye into the second round of the Big Ten tournament.
What's more, Northwestern's draw looks pretty favorable. They'll play Indiana on Thursday night at the United Center in downtown Chicago, with the winner of the game earning the right to play second-seeded Maryland, a team who has often looked worse than its record.
Let's also not forget that Northwestern beat Indiana back on Feb. 25 and would have beaten Maryland in College Park *if* someone had boxed out Dez Wells. If you've blocked that game from memory, good on you, but here's a reminder: Maryland came back from an 11 point deficit with four minutes remaining to pull the most unlikeliest of comebacks, and escaped with a 68-67 victory.
Both games were some of the best Northwestern has played this season, particularly the contest against Indiana. Northwestern was coming off a three-game winning streak and playing a Indiana team that, on paper, should have had no trouble with Northwestern's zone (Indiana took and made the most threes in conference play). Indiana did indeed come out firing from behind the arc, going 9-14 in the first half, but Northwestern matched with its best half of offense in the conference season and entered the break tied up at 40-40. Indiana was ice cold in the second half, allowing Northwestern to pull away and win their fourth-straight by a final total of 72-65.
Northwestern scored 1.4 points/possession in the first half and finished with an excellent 1.24 points per. Let's take a look at the film to see just how Northwestern was able to keep up with Indiana despite all the Hoosiers' made three pointers.
They fed Alex Olah
Indiana had Hanner Mosquera-Perea guard Olah in the first game, and since he's started both games since then, it's reasonable to believe it'll be the same matchup on Thursday. Mosquera-Perea is a solid athlete with an incredible wing span, but he gives up three inches and 45 pounds to Olah. Northwestern took advantage of this size mismatch and fed the big Romanian often, and their efforts were largely fruitful.
It started early. Here's Northwestern's first possession, which came after James Blackmon opened the game's scoring with, you guessed it, a three-pointer.
Northwestern comes out in a 1-4 high stack set that they've run frequently this year. Bryant McIntosh passes to Sanjay Lumpkin on the wing before faking a UCLA-type cut. He stops in the lane, rubs Mosquera-Perea, and that contact allows Olah to get a step on his defender. Olah makes a hard front cut to the right block, where he gets a nice entry pass from Lumpkin before looking to shoot with his left hand.
Indiana's Justin Blackmon comes off his man, Scottie Lindsey, to execute what looks like a planned double team. He goes for the strip, but instead catches all arm and sends Olah to the line, where he converted both free throws.
On this next clip, Tre Demps' dribble penetration forces Yogi Ferrell, who was fronting Olah, to gravitate toward Vic Law in the corner to prevent a kick-out and an open three point shot. That allowed Demps to find Olah, who'd established nice position on the low left block. Olah takes a dribble and gets into Mosquera-Perea's body to neutralize that Indiana man's wingspan. Olah elevates over Mosquera-Perea's block attempt and his baby hook is money.
After Northwestern had sustained a double-digit lead late into the game, they spread the floor and tried to use up as much clock as possible to preserve their advantage.Here, Tre Demps passes to Bryant McIntosh on the wing, and Mosquera-Perea moves to front Olah and try and prevent an entry pass. Olah uses his size to seal off Perea, and McIntosh fires a pass to Olah to set up the easy layup.
Olah finished with 10 points in the first half and 17 overall. Tom Crean is likely to show his team the exact clips you just watched, so you can expect Indiana to try and deny Olah the basketball. But it's imperative that Chris Collins finds a way to take advantage of the size mismatch and get his big man the ball, a strategy that was so successful in these two teams' previous meetings.
They were efficient three point shooters
Northwestern made 8 of 20 three pointers against Indiana, and five different players connected from behind the arc. One of Northwestern's strengths on offense is the sheer number of shooters it has; it's a huge nuisance for a defense to keep track of four, or even five, three point shooters on the floor at the same time.
The best of these shooters has been Nathan Taphorn, who's still shooting a torrid 48% from three point land. Taphorn's not a huge threat to creat his own shot, but Collins has set up an increasing number of plays designed to get Taphorn a clean look at a catch-and-shoot three.
Watch as Dave Sobolewski and Taphorn run a side pick and roll that results in an open look for Taphorn, which he converts. Also notice that the reason James Blackmon is slow to close out is that he's mindful of double-teaming Olah. Even when Olah didn't get the ball, his presence drew the attention of the defense and allowed his teammates to get open.
Sanjay Lumpkin isn't much of an offensive juggernaut, but Northwestern is at his best when he's a willing three point shooter when the opportunity presents itself.
With the game tied at 42, Olah comes out to the top of the key, likely to facilitate a pick and roll with Demps, and Mosquera-Perea stays at home in the key. After Demps gets a pass at the top of the key from Vic Law, both Demps' and Olah's man are cognizant of said pick and roll and completely forget about Lumpkin, who finds himself wide open at the free-throw line extended. Demps hits Lumpkin with a pass and Lumpkin doesn't hesitate to shoot the three, which finds nothing but net.
Vic Law's midseason resurgence began against Minnesota, when he hit three consecutive three pointers, and continued in his next two games against Penn State and Indiana. He finished with 14 points against the Hoosiers and was a perfect 3 of 3 from behind the arc.
This play comes on Northwestern's very next offensive possession following that Lumpkin three. Law hits Lumpkin, who's in a favorable position to shoot another three, with a bounce pass. But this time, Indiana is quick to close Lumpkin out, as they remember his three from the previous possession. Two guys hustle to Lumpkin, leaving Law wide open for his third three point attempt of the night.
Bottoms. Two posessions, six points and all the sudden, a five point lead.
Tre Demps took over down the stretch
Against Indiana, Tre Demps had perhaps his best game of the season, tying a season-high with 23 points on an ultra efficient 8 of 12 shooting. That prompted Tom Crean to ponder Demps' future NBA prospects in his post game press conference. While that's a bit of a stretch, it's no coincidence Crean was so effusive in his praise for Demps following this performance.
WIth 13 minutes to go, Northwestern held a slim 49-48 advantage. But that's when Demps went off, scoring nine consecutive points to put Northwestern ahead for good.
The first score of the binge came on this nifty left-handed reverse layup.
Then, after a monster Scottie Lindsey block that was featured on SportCenter's Top 10 plays, Northwestern broke out on a fast break. McIntosh found an open Demps in the corner, who converted to send Welsh-Ryan into a frenzy.
In his next act, Demps took an inbounds pass before curling around an Olah screen. He found his way to his favorite spot on the floor, the left elbow, and hit a step-back jumper.
The last play of the Demps-a-thon was a floater from the free throw line.
It's unreasonable to expect a similar outburst from Demps, but he's been much better--and more efficient--as of late. As Kevin Trahan pointed out, he's emerged as Northwestern's leader on the offensive end.
If Northwestern is to beat Indiana and advance to the Big Ten Tournament semi finals, they'll need to be similarly adept on offense and hope Indiana isn't hitting the threes it will certainly take. Indiana has lost three straight while Northwestern has won five of seven, so it's not unreasonable for that to happen.