Once again, Northwestern (14-3 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) has a chance to prove its legitimacy in a Big Ten home game against a program that has fallen off its perch. Last week, it was against Ohio State and this week, it's against the Wisconsin Badgers (9-8, 1-3).
Just this season, the Badgers have dealt with the stepping-down of legendary head coach Bo Ryan in addition to losing Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker (and Duje Dukan), the leaders of last season’s team that knocked off Kentucky and made the NCAA Finals. New coach Greg Gard has mostly kept Bo Ryan’s system in place, but Wisconsin has had a rough start to Big Ten play after losing close games to Indiana and Maryland.
"Looking at what coach Gard has done," Chris Collins on Monday. "He’s been with Bo [Ryan] so long and the one thing I’ve seen is [the Badgers] have gone back to some of their basics with their swing offense."
If Northwestern can take care of business at home, it would be a huge boost for a team that appears to be on the rise. However, the game will be ultimately come down to whether the Wildcats’ three-pointer fueled offense can execute against a tough man-to-man defense, something that the Wildcats have not done in Big Ten play this season.
"We just have to run our offense and trust it," Bryant McIntosh said. "We’re a three-point shooting team and we just have to take the shots we get…We have to also be able to attack the basket and get to the free throw line."
At times, Northwestern’s offense has looked potent. The only problem is that it has only been effective against bad defensive teams. Scoring 103 points against Sacred Heart looks great on paper, but NU's offensive production has been rather up-and-down since the start of Big Ten play. Northwestern was held to under 60 points against capable Maryland and Ohio State, but torched weak Minnesota and Nebraska. Coming into Tuesday's game, Wisconsin is in between Ohio State and Nebraska in defensive efficiency on KenPom, the game will be an interesting litmus test for Northwestern, especially with Wisconsin’s struggles against the three this season.
When the Wildcats get going from three, they can become a devastating offensive team. Recognizing this, Ohio State and Maryland successfully used their athleticism to guard against NU’s three-point attack, leading to two disastrous shooting efforts. While those teams did a good job of limiting Northwestern, the Wildcats also had a lot of rolls go against them and the team’s three-point percentage regressed back to the mean with a solid showing against Minnesota’s useless zone defense. Aaron Falzon broke out of his shooting slump with six three-pointers, and the team hit 11 threes total.
Wisconsin’s defense plays like Maryland and Ohio State’s man-to-man schemes, which does not bode well for Northwestern’s offense. However, Wisconsin has allowed one of the highest three-point percentages in the nation over the last two seasons. Although the Badgers are sound overall and don't allow many three-point attempts (No. 19 in KenPom), Northwestern should still be able to get some opportunities to beat them from three and in the mid-range due to the nature of the Wildcats’ offense. That will mean Falzon, Nathan Taphorn, Scottie Lindsey and McIntosh will have to knock down perimeter shots when open, as Northwestern may find it difficult to score inside against Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown.
"They stay with their men a lot, and they zone up on pick-and-roll action," Collins said. "They want you to shoot mid-range jumpers."
Wisconsin's defensive shot chart backs that analysis up:
Northwestern is projected to emerge with a close 63-59 victory per KenPom. Here are some other points of interest heading into the game.
Northwestern would like to give McIntosh regular rest
Jordan Ash gave Bryant McIntosh much-needed rest during the Minnesota game, and Collins plans to incorporate Ash into the rotation when possible in order to circumvent McIntosh’s recent struggles late in games.
"Our guards can’t continue to play forty minutes," McIntosh said. "Just being able to sit down and catch my breath for a few minutes was huge."
Ash had been dealing with a staph infection in his leg and the Minnesota game was his first significant game action in weeks. If the freshman can provide Northwestern with some quality backcourt depth, it would certainly help the team at both ends of the floor.
Defensively, Northwestern will continue to prefer the zone
Collins has mostly gone to the zone ever since the second half of the Nebraska game, and that probably won’t change despite Wisconsin’s bigger frontcourt.
"I think we’ve played a lot of zone and we’re really effective with it," Collins said. "We’re kinda a man/zone, it’s not a true zone, but it’s something our guys have really taken to. It has really helped our rebounding and it's something we’re going to stay with."
Northwestern’s defensive efficiency and rebounding percentages have improved significantly since the start of Big Ten play. Minnesota had difficulty finding ways to break through NU’s interior defense, which was significantly less effective earlier in the season against Columbia and Virginia Tech.