MINNEAPOLIS — After two wakeup calls against two of the most athletic teams in the Big Ten, Northwestern got back on track Saturday by routing Minnesota (6-10, 0-4 Big Ten) with a complete performance on both ends of the floor.
The game began sloppily on both ends. Defensive lapses led to open threes, but many were missed. It also took the Wildcats a few minutes to come to grips with Minnesota's matchup zone.
The one player who got going early was Aaron Falzon. Northwestern was able to manipulate Minnesota's defense to get Falzon open looks, and the freshman hit 4 of his first 6 shots from deep. His fourth gave Northwestern a 20-11 lead with just under 9 minutes to play in the half.
But the Wildcats sputtered over those final 9 first-half minutes. They missed shots, turned the ball over, and allowed Minnesota to hang around. Northwestern pushed the lead to 11 with 3 minutes remaining in the half, but a Minnesota mini-run cut Northwestern's lead to 6, 32-26, at halftime.
Falzon was back at it after the break though. Chris Collins drew up a great play out of halftime to get Joey van Zegeren a dunk, and then Falzon found van Zegeren for another one. That loosened up the Gophers' defense, and gave Falzon room to operate on the perimeter. He scored eight-straight Northwestern points, two threes and a two-point jumper, to give NU a 44-32 advantage.
Northwestern held Minnesota at arm's length from that point forward. The Wildcats' lead ballooned to 48-33 at the under-12 timeout of the second half, and they continued to prove their superiority over those final 12 minutes, winning 77-52 to move to 14-3 overall and 2-2 in the Big Ten.
Two big takeaways
After playing primarily man-to-man defense in non-conference play, Northwestern has become almost exclusively a zone team in conference play, and Chris Collins, for the most part, stuck with it even against Minnesota, one of the worst teams in the conference. However, the Wildcats' zone seemed to be a little different.
Last season, after the Wildcats had success with the zone during a stretch in which they won four of five games, Illinois really exposed the zone and scored 1.34 points per possession in a 86-60 win. In the following game, the Wildcats incorporated some new matchup zone concepts in their win over Michigan. Saturday against Minnesota, it's almost as if Collins preemptively adjusted to keep Minnesota off balance. The zone seemed a little less rigid, and despite a few breakdowns, which are to be expected, it worked to near perfection. Minnesota shot just 39 percent from the field, and 28 percent from three.
Northwestern, Falzon pick apart Minnesota's zone
At times early on, Northwestern seemed to be a bit befuddled by Minnesota's zone, but after a while, the Wildcats figured it out and were able to move Aaron Falzon around the perimeter and get him open looks. Scottie Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps also gave the Gophers problems, even if the shots didn't always go down.
Then, in the second half, with Minnesota extending the zone slightly, Sanjay Lumpkin and Falzon each found van Zegeren inside for dunks. With Minnesota worried about giving up easy buckets inside, Falzon found even more space outside. He got three-straight open looks from beyond the arc and knocked down two of them. Northwestern shot 11 of 25 from three-point range, a vast improvement over the 2-of-20 and 6-of-25 performances against Maryland and Ohio State, respectively.
There are a few aspects to the offense's success compared to the last two games. One is undoubtedly the strength of NU's opponents. Minnesota couldn't match up with Northwestern athletically, and in its zone it couldn't stick tight to shooters like Maryland and Ohio State had done. The difference was also schematic though. Against the zone, Northwestern moved well without the ball. Falzon found space in the corners and on the wings. And without a dedicated man-marker forcing Falzon to put the ball on the floor, he was able to catch and shoot, which is what he does better than anybody on the team.
- Williams Arena is a really cool place, but it was dead. Minnesota students are still on break for another week, it snowed Friday night, and the temperature was in single digits Saturday, so the turnout was poor. It was far from an intimidating atmosphere. This is five minutes before the game:
- Northwestern had 10 first half turnovers. The Wildcats came into the game with a turnover percentage that ranked among the nation's top 20, but they did seem a little put off by Minnesota's zone, and tried to find openings that just weren't there.
- Chris Collins brought in Jordan Ash for Bryant McIntosh after the under-12 media timeout in the first half. Ash played just under two minutes, and without McIntosh, NU's offense looked out of whack. McIntosh returned within two minutes. Collins did the same thing again later in the half before the under-4 timeout, and against before the under-12 in the second half. After McIntosh basically played the entire game against Ohio State, Collins felt the need to give him rest early in the game so that he could ride his star point guard late if necessary. Of course, it wasn't necessary, but either way, it's good to see McIntosh only playing 32 minutes, as opposed to 39 or 40.
- Dererk Pardon had his least effective game since Northwestern burned his redshirt with one game left on the non-conference slate. He played fewer minutes than van Zegeren, didn't make a field goal until there were 5 minutes remaining in the second half, and he also had 3 turnovers.
- Minnesota picked up full court at times, but Northwestern handled the pressure very well. Whether it was Demps or McIntosh handing the ball, the press was a non-factor in the game.
- McIntosh had a career high 11 assists.