You know that saying about how good teams look as they get off the bus? Maryland is the definition of one of those teams. At any point, head coach Mark Turgeon can throw two near-7-footers on the floor who have the size, strength, speed, skill and basketball IQ to — when combined with the stellar backcourt of Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon — enter the national championship picture. But Turgeon usually likes to go "small," putting 6-foot-9 forwards Robert Carter and Jake Layman in the game alongside an imposing center.
"They're so big," Northwestern guard Tre Demps said Tuesday after Northwestern's 62-56 overtime loss in College Park. "They have NBA-type size down there. Once you get past one guy, you have another 7-footer flying at you. So it's tough."
For years, Northwestern had been on the other end of that spectrum. And, most of the time, it still is, especially against teams built like Maryland. Wildcats head man Chris Collins prefers to have a shooter playing forward alongside any one of Alex Olah, Joey van Zegeren or Dererk Pardon.
So with his team struggling to just three points in the first three-and-a-half minutes of the game, Turgeon went to his big lineup. He put a front line of Layman, Damonte Dodd (6-foot-11) and Diamond Stone (6-foot-11) on the floor, which, as he probably correctly predicted, put Collins in a predicament.
Was Northwestern going to stay stubborn in its lineup, maintaining the positional rigidity of Collins' first two-plus seasons in Evanston? Or, would Collins succumb to Turgeon's plan and throw out an unproven, untested and risky combination of players in a hostile road environment in a pivotal conference game?
Collins did succumb. And, off the bench popped both 7-foot senior center Alex Olah and 6-foot-9 freshman big man Dererk Pardon. The substitutions pushed Aaron Falzon (6-foot-8) to the "three" to matchup with Layman on the wing and kept Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps as the primary ball-handlers against Trimble and Sulaimon.
In only the second game in which they were both active, Collins threw Olah and Pardon into an almost unwinnable situation. And what resulted was a glimpse at what Northwestern can have moving forward rotating three capable big men in various lineups. Northwestern went big, matching up toe-to-toe with Maryland.
In a four-and-a-half minute stretch in the first half, Northwestern scored 10 points with the big lineup to Maryland's 9. And in the second half, Collins pulled the big group after just under three minutes as it was outscored 6-2 in that stretch. The big difference in the second half was that Carter, a more mobile and athletic big man, was in the game.
What Collins did offensively with the big lineup was especially intriguing. Having Pardon and Olah in the game would seem to completely eliminate spacing. But spacing is an interesting thing. Spacing, when talked about at the NBA-level and even when referring to some of the more individually talented teams in college hoops, is brought up in the context of pick-and-roll, post-up or isolation play. When teams have more capable outside shooters on the floor, the lane opens for drivers and big men to maneuver. But teams can also create space with good screening, effective ball movement, intelligent cutting and players that thrive in the positions they're put in. Even in the limited time this lineup shared the floor, Northwestern was able to manufacture effective offense using these principles.
Take this possession for example, which ends in a Pardon post up.
Northwestern's offensive set begins as it often does with a high ball screen for McIntosh. Olah sets the screen but cannot roll to the basket because Pardon, who has no outside game, has to play near the rim. Planted there already, Olah's only option is to pop out to the top of the key. Diamond Stone knows Olah is not really a threat to beat you from the three-point line and chooses, correctly, to hedge hard and cut off McIntosh's path, leaving Olah open.
McIntosh finds the senior center and as soon as he catches the ball, Northwestern has created spacing. Four Wildcats are outside the three-point line and four Maryland defenders are hugging them. Only Pardon and his man, Dodd, are in the paint. Stone recovers to Olah a bit late, so the experienced center has time to survey his options. As Pardon uses his powerful lower body to gain superb post position on Dodd, Olah finds him with a nice entry pass, something Northwestern's guards and wings have struggled with this season.
For three-plus years now, Olah has showcased his court vision from the high post. It's something former Northwestern coach Bill Carmody saw in the Romanian when he recruited him to play in his Princeton offense. The high-low feed from Olah to Pardon puts both players in positions to succeed as Olah makes a smart, accurate and on-time pass and Pardon goes to work down low, finishing with a soft baby hook.
Olah, one of the few remaining "Carmody players" left on the roster, has also adapted well to Collins system over the past couple seasons, improving both his low-post game and ball-screen techniques. For example, here's a play Northwestern never would have ran under Carmody as it's a patented Collins set: a relatively simple double ball screen.
McIntosh initially goes left, choosing to use the screen of Pardon, who has already proven to be a more effective roll-man than Olah. With his touch around the rim and long arms, Pardon is a big target for McIntosh. Stone, who was matched up with Olah, does the right thing and picks up Pardon as he rolls into the lane with his teammate, Dodd, out hedging on McIntosh. With Pardon covered by Stone, McIntosh pauses and keeps his dribble alive. He sees Dodd with his back turned as he runs toward the now abandoned Olah. As he crosses back to his right, Trimble is still recovering. Olah then plants a second screen on Trimble and the star guard has no way of recovering back to the attacking McIntosh. Dodd, still, has no idea where McIntosh is as the back-to-back high ball screens wreak havoc on Maryland's two bigs. McIntosh then steps into a wide-open two (his toe was on the three-point line).
Again, Northwestern creates its own space, forcing Dodd and Stone to make choices that will, if all goes as planned, result in confusion. More often than not, effective offense relies on forcing defenders to make choices and having the ability to execute and take advantage of whatever choice that defender makes. The double ball screen is not a hard set to see coming, but defending it creates problems for defenses because it puts big men in positions where they have to be disciplined in their assignments and mobile at the same time.
But as good as the Wildcats offense may have looked with this big lineup, its defense suffered. Northwestern stuck with its oddly constructed 2-3 matchup zone with the two big men on the floor, putting Pardon into extremely uncomfortable positions having to guard players on the wing.
Because Northwestern's defense changes and morphs on a possession-by-possession or even dribble-by-dribble basis, it's hard to tell exactly whether Falzon is correct in following Trimble as he cuts along the baseline. Regardless, Falzon either fails to let Pardon know where he is on the court or Pardon just ignores him as both players step toward Trimble on the wing. Sulaimon then attacks McIntosh and beats him to the free-throw line. Olah is the lone Wildcat defender in the play as the Terrapins create a three-on-one advantage with Sulaimon, Stone and Dodd. Pardon, late to get back, leaves Olah hanging as Stone finishes the play after bobbling the pass from Sulaimon.
Sticking in that matchup zone, which hinges on the ability of the wing players to make the right defensive reads, will be tough for Northwestern if it plays Pardon and Olah together. Olah has proven to be a decent rim protector in the center of the zone, and Pardon may work out fine for stretches playing on the wing in a traditional 2-3 set. But when he may have to pick up ball-handlers on exchanges in the matchup zone, Northwestern will get burned.
The emergence of Pardon and stellar play of van Zegeren — who at this point is criminally underrated — along with the return of Olah gives Collins some new options against some of the Big Ten's biggest teams. As he works his way back from injury, Olah — who played just 13 minutes against Maryland in his second game back from a stress fracture in his foot — will undoubtedly improve his touch and effectiveness. Partnering him with Pardon is a good way to allow him to get his rhythm back, as he operates at the high post, a spot from which he has proven to be effective in the past.
Saturday against Indiana, the Wildcats will actually have a size advantage down low. It will be interesting to see if Collins, with a few extra days to test out combinations in practice before the game in Bloomington, will trot out that big lineup to gain a physical advantage down low.