EVANSTON -- Armon Gates is frank on this Friday afternoon, with Northwestern riding a two-game win streak. The assistant coach smiles and bounces around Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Wildcats are in a good spot, with convincing wins at Minnesota and at home against Wisconsin, with a matchup against Penn State looming the next evening.
Gates calls over point guard Bryant McIntosh, his protégé of sorts, and asks him how long they spoke on the phone Thursday night. "Thirty, 40 minutes," the sophomore responds.
"It's communication," Gates says. "It's all about communication."
The most junior member of Northwestern's coaching staff is also the most energetic. He constantly leaps off his seat during games, pointing out cutters and calling out opponents' sets. That's his role, he says. But another hat Gates wears is as a defensive strategist.
According to Gates, Northwestern's man-to-man "f*****g sucked" earlier in the 2015-16 season, after the Wildcats went back to the defense after finishing 2014-15 using a 2-3 zone. Northwestern head coach Chris Collins had never coached zone before, so he relied upon Gates.
After pretty much completely switching to a 2-3 zone midway through nonconference play this season, the Wildcats' zone has evolved in the early stages of conference play, moving away from a stationary zone scheme to more of a matchup scheme. In other words, Northwestern's defenders do not matchup with specific players, but mold the defense to adapt to the actions the offense runs.
"I don't really know what it is to be honest," Collins says.
On individual possessions, the defense starts out looking like a zone. It's set up with two guards and three players along the baseline. It's conservative in its nature. The wings, usually Aaron Falzon and Sanjay Lumpkin, play a bit higher than usual, but not too high.
But then, Wisconsin throws Nigel Hayes into the high post, which is an effective strategy against a 2-3 zone. Getting the ball to a playmaker in the high post collapses a zone. Usually, the center, Joey van Zegeren in this case, would account for Hayes, which would put a lot of pressure on Northwestern's back line. Instead, though, Hayes becomes Demps's responsibility.
Northwestern's defense has morphed. It has shifted to account for the Badgers' best player moving to a dangerous position. While the other four defenders maintain their zone responsibilities, Demps sticks to Hayes and prevents an entry pass.
But other teams will do that, putting a guard on the high post. What happens next gets really wonky.
Instead of staying at the top of the key, McIntosh follows the 6-foot-8 Vitto Brown as he cuts to the basket. Now, Northwestern's defense resembles more of a man, with each Wisconsin player being accounted for. When Alex Illikainen gets the ball on the baseline, van Zegeren flashes out as if he's guarding him man-to-man, but as soon as he takes a dribble, the defense morphs again. Falzon moves over to take Illikainen, while van Zegeren slides back to account for Brown who is posting up McIntosh on the block. McIntosh then sprints back up to the top of the key to close out on Zak Showalter as Lumpkin mans the weakside, recovering to contest a Bronson Koenig three.
It's an organized scramble, of sorts. It looks chaotic, with a lot of pointing, yelling and switching. And in many ways that's exactly what it is. The "Chameleon," as Henry Bushnell calls it because of its appearance-shifting nature, is a combination of man principles in a zone format with constant exchanges sprinkled in. Wisconsin could not figure it out in Northwestern's 70-65 win.
But in Northwestern's 71-62 loss to Penn State on Saturday night, head coach Pat Chambers exploited some of the weak spots in Collins' and Gates' brainchild using basic offensive principles.
The Nittany Lions used the chaotic nature of Northwestern's defense against it. Penn State consistently got the Wildcats to overcommit and put pressure on the defense's weak spots.
Penn State didn't do anything particularly special here. The Nittany Lions pushed the ball up the court and didn't allow Northwestern's defense to get completely set. They spaced the floor well and took advantage of Northwestern's morphing defense. McIntosh and Demps converge on the high ball screen, using those man-to-man principles that make this defense unique. But the backline doesn't follow suit, staying in its zone set up.
Scottie Lindsey gets hung out to dry on the weakside. He's got two players to guard while Pardon and Skelly are both guarding the same man. They thus remain out of the play once the ball is reversed, and Pardon can't get out to the shooter in the corner. Penn State copied this same set multiple times to get open threes on late rotations.
The Nittany Lions also pressured Northwestern's back line using post ups and cut-throughs.
When Shep Garner (No. 33) cuts along the baseline, Falzon follows him to the opposite side. Northwestern has done this type of thing — following opponents' best players around the court — in previous games, especially against Hayes from Wisconsin and Joey King from Minnesota.
Once Garner clears Falzon out, Lumpkin picks up Brandon Taylor (No. 10) on the block. Taylor pins Lumpkin though, and when he receives the entry pass, Northwestern is basically in a straight-up man. But as soon as Taylor makes a move around Lumpkin on the baseline, Pardon leaves Jordan Dickerson (No. 32) unattended under the hoop and Falzon is too late to help down from his position guarding Garner on the perimeter.
What this defense ultimately boils down to is communication, as Gates mentioned before practice. Northwestern just didn't seem to be on the same page defensively against Penn State. Demps said as much after the game:
"The highlight of this game is that we didn't play well on the defensive end."
— Inside NU (@insidenu) January 17, 2016
"There was a lack of togetherness tonight." Notes lack of communication, missed rotations.
— Inside NU (@insidenu) January 17, 2016
For Northwestern to fully employ this defense, communication lapses just cannot happen. Late rotations are killers and shooters left unaccounted for can be devastating. It's a high-risk, high-reward scheme that can be exploited off the ball, but also allows Northwestern to account for some of its athletic deficiencies on defense. In the team's upcoming stretch with four-straight games at No. 7 Maryland, at No. 25 Indiana, vs. No. 11 Michigan State and at No. 9 Iowa, Northwestern will have to stay disciplined in its scheme, or risk getting torch by the top tier of the conference.