After a heart-breaking loss on the road against Maryland on Tuesday night — the second such defeat in as many seasons for Northwestern — the Wildcats have fallen below .500 in Big Ten play (3-4) and have dropped to 15-5 overall. They'll look to get back in the winning column following two straight losses this Saturday in Bloomington against the No. 25 Indiana Hoosiers (16-3 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) .
Since the preseason Maui Invitational Tournament in late November in which they lost to Wake Forest and UNLV in a three-day span (with a win over St. John's sandwiched in between) the Hoosiers have gone 12-1 with their only blemish being a 94-74 loss to Duke at Cameron Indoor. Granted, outside of Notre Dame and maybe Ohio State, Tom Crean's team hasn't exactly faced the toughest competition during that run, but it has been an impressive stretch of play nonetheless.
Even though star sophomore James Blackmon Jr. only played in the Hoosiers' first 13 games before being sidelined with a season-ending knee injury, they have been able to make do behind senior guard Yogi Ferrell (17.1 points and 6.1 assists per game) and junior forward Troy Williams (13.3 points and 6.6 rebounds) during their current 11-game winning streak.
Indiana, which is No. 25 in the latest AP poll and, as of Thursday night, No. 24 in KenPom, holds the nation's 19th-best offensive efficiency and is second (behind just St. Mary's) in effective field goal percentage (61.2), all without Blackmon, who averaged 15.7 points per game in his freshman season and 15.8 in the 13 games he played this year before his injury. The Hoosiers are also No. 3 nationally in three-point percentage and No. 5 in two-point percentage. This team can flat-out score the basketball, and do it with incredible efficiency.
All nine of Indiana's players who average 10 or more minutes a game have field goal percentage higher than 42 percent, with four guys posting marks of greater than 56 percent. Williams, for example, is a 6-foot-7 leaper who converts nearly 57 percent of his field goal attempts and can also make threes here and there while Thomas Bryant, a four-star freshman center, is above 71 percent. Also, role players like Robert Johnson, Nick Zeisloft and Max Bielfeldt, a transfer from Michigan, all shoot better than 40 percent from three-point range. It's easy to be efficient with so many offensive weapons.
The Hoosiers' versatile offensive attack was on full display in their last win, a 103-69 thumping of Illinois in Bloomington on Tuesday night. In that game, eight players scored seven or more points and, more remarkably, nine different Hoosiers made a three.
Indiana does have one major flaw: committing turnovers. The Hoosiers turn the ball over on nearly 21 percent of their possessions, which is 311th in Division 1 (there are only 351 D1 teams). Even worse, half of those turnovers are on steals (their offensive steal rate is 278th nationally) meaning that Indiana's opponents, on about one-tenth of the Hoosiers' offensive possessions, force live-ball turnovers that can be easily turned into quick points, as opposed to dead ball turnovers like offensive charges or out-of-bounds passes.
Unfortunately, Northwestern hasn't been good at forcing turnovers on defense at all this season, especially not via the steal (the Wildcats are No. 335 in the country in that). But, if there's a game in which they could take advantage of a sloppy opponent, it would be Saturday's.
So, Indiana's biggest offensive weakness happens to coincide with Northwestern's biggest defensive weakness. Even the Hoosiers' offensive efficiency could be negated by the Wildcats, who are 26th in opponent effective field goal percentage. It appears that Indiana's extremely accurate three-point shooting (and noted depth) could be the most important aspect of this game. There are also some key head-to-head matchups to watch out for:
1. Bryant McIntosh vs. Yogi Ferrell
This is the obvious most important battle for Saturday. Without Blackmon Jr., Ferrell has had to carry a larger offensive burden and plays almost all 40 minutes of each of Indiana's game, much like a certain Northwestern point guard. Yogi's game is predicated around the three-point line (he's 44 percent from beyond the arc this year) and the paint, as he doesn't really take many mid-range shots (per ShotAnalytics.com) even though he converts them at an efficient rate.
McIntosh, who did a decent job on him in the two games between the teams in the 2014-15, has to respect both Ferrell's inside and outside his games which makes him a very tough cover due to his speed. The good news is that McIntosh has a few inches on Ferrell, so he should be able to get his own decent looks from three, but Ferrell's quickness could make drives to the hoop difficult.
2. Aaron Falzon vs. Troy Williams
Athletically, Williams is a terrible matchup for Falzon, as the Hoosiers' small forward plays bigger than his size and is a incredible finisher at the rim, as well as being a good rebounder. He also has developed a decent three-point shot this season so he can beat Northwestern's freshman on the perimeter or right at the hoop. In order for the Wildcats to have a good chance in this game, they're going to need to keep the Hoosiers off the boards, which is where this matchup could be a big problem for them.
3. Joey van Zegeren/Dererk Pardon vs. Thomas Bryant
Bryant is one of the Big Ten's multiple impressive freshman centers and scores basically all of his points right at the rim, on an over 70 percent clip. He'll be a handful for van Zegeren and Pardon (assuming Olah, who hasn't looked great since returning from injury, doesn't play many minutes against Bryant) as he has a strong 6-foot-10 frame and actually is first in the country in two-point percentage. He is great at getting position in the post and even better at finishing for points, in addition to posting impressive rebounding rates. Van Zegeren has a few inches on him, so he should be fine defensively but Pardon probably will have some issues containing Bryant.
Press Conference Notes
- While Collins was proud of his team's effort in the loss to Maryland, there was still some disappointment. "I think we're trying to cross the bridge as a program of it's not ok to just come close. Your goal is to try to win." Collins added the team needs to bring that toughness every game.
- Collins has been very impressed with Indiana. "I think offensively they're as good as it gets, definitely in our league but maybe even nationally."
- Collins said playing Olah with Pardon is something he had looked at to combat Maryland's size. "I think those guys, in stretches, can play together. I thought there was some good things... I think it's something you'll see going forward." Collins said playing Indiana, which plays small ball, may mean not seeing it as much this game.
- Collins praised Indiana's progress on the defensive end. "Robert Johnson's great on the ball, Yogi Ferrell, tremendous defender, Troy Williams is maybe the best athlete in our league. And then you add Thomas Bryant inside who's a high-energy, high-motor shot blocker, rebounder. They have all the components to be very good defensively."
- Olah's struggles, Collins said, are mainly because of rust. "Really for a month he didn't do anything."
- On the upcoming difficult stretch of games: "We feel like we can play with anybody. I feel good about our guys' confidence level."
- Northwestern has been outstanding on the offensive boards this season, and Collins credited guys just having a knack for the ball, three of which are new additions from last year. He listed Sanjay Lumpkin, Dererk Pardon, Aaron Falzon and Joey van Zegeren as those guys. "We have three or four guys that really have a tendency to get in there and have a knack for getting on the boards."
- On the other hand, Indiana is a team that likes to push the ball, so attacking the glass could be risky. "A big key to the game is gonna be our transition D."