MINNEAPOLIS — Live by the three, die by the three. That seems to be Northwestern's MO so far this season, and it didn't change on Saturday against Minnesota. After shooting 20 three-pointers against Maryland and 25 against Ohio State, the Wildcats once again fired away from deep, launching 25 three-pointers against Minnesota.
The only difference was the shots started going in.
It started with Aaron Falzon, the highly-touted three-point marksman, who was locked in from deep from the very beginning. Falzon hit four of his first five three-point attempts en route to a 20-point performance. What helped spur this hot start was Minnesota's defense, a 2-3 zone.
"In a zone there's a lot more gaps and no one's always guarding you so there's a lot more openings," said Falzon. "So as a shooter, you get a lot more open looks that way"
More on Northwestern-Minnesota
More on Northwestern-Minnesota
Following two straight games against man-to-man defense, playing against a zone was just the type of medicine the Wildcats deep attack needed. As the Wildcats have learned themselves, playing a zone isn't easy, and when an opposing player starts to shoot the lights out it just makes it all the harder.
"In a zone, you got to really talk, it's really harder in a zone because you really have to rely on guys to cover your back when you're playing areas," said head coach Chris Collins. "I thought we got some [threes] in transition in the first half, Aaron got a few. I thought Aaron's shooting really opened up the game for us."
Getting out in transition was vital for Northwestern early on, as it didn't allow the defense to get set in the zone. This caused mismatches and, quite often, wide open shooters too. Northwestern achieved this through their own zone which was much more opportunistic than usual, forcing 11 turnovers, leading to 10 points on the other end.
In the half court, the lack of physicality by Minnesota defenders allowed Northwestern to get more comfortable and get into a rhythm.
"Everybody is more comfortable when there's nobody in your face," said Falzon. "So when they leave you open and you hit one or two it kind of gets you going and from there you're just playing basketball."
That was the key for the entire offense, especially after it struggled to adjust to the athleticism of Maryland. The zone allows for more free movement by players off-ball and, in many cases, chances to take open threes. There's always the concept of just shooting the other team out of the zone, which other teams did to Northwestern multiple times last season, but that's not really what happened today. With the exception of a couple deep Falzon threes, most of Northwestern's threes were products of the defense not being able to rotate over quick enough or simply letting a guy go without bumping him off his cut. When playing a zone the team has to, to an extent, hope their opponent misses some open shots, and on Saturday, Northwestern, for the most part, did not.
That being said, Minnesota still doesn't play the most conventional zone, as it tries to pressure out beyond the three point line. When it works, this puts pressure on the opposing guards and makes it more difficult to find the open shooters. For Northwestern, however, this allowed Falzon to stealthily find open spots on the court.
"We were trying to get [Falzon] lost," said Collins. "Because they play an aggressive zone, they really extend, our zone is more compact. They really extend it out by half court and we really felt like there were some gaps in the middle of the floor."
Interestingly enough, the fact that Northwestern itself plays a zone contributed to their success against Minnesota. "We play a lot of zone," said Collins, "so we have a little bit of a familiarity because we practice against zone a lot." The players' prior knowledge gave them a leg up when it came to running the offense, because they already knew the weaknesses and how to exploit them.
Unfortunately for Northwestern, it's not going to get to play against a 2-3 zone in every game over the next few months. But the players can still use the skills they showed today against a man-to-man defense. And while the zone is what contributed to the victory today, sometimes basketball can just be as simple as putting the ball in the hoop.
"Even though those teams we played last game played really good defense, we also missed open shots and tonight we made open shots," said Collins. "We can analyze a lot about the game, but sometimes it's just do you make shots when they're open or do you miss?"