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FILM: Aggressive, smart defense helps stake Northwestern to massive lead

The Flyers couldn’t get anything going whatsoever until late.

2016 State Farm Chicago Legends Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

What seemed like eons before Northwestern’s near-collapse versus Dayton on Saturday night at the United Center, the Wildcats utterly dominated the first half. Offensively, they hit over 50 percent of their shots, knocked down five three-pointers and put up 40 points in the first 20 minutes. It was clinical at times, and it was balanced, too: Five players had at least five points at the break, yet none had reached double digits.

But what was far more impressive was the Wildcats’ work on the defensive end during the opening period. Dayton, one of the more efficient teams in the nation offensively, shot 4 of 28 from the floor. The Flyers had a field goal drought of double digit minutes and a scoring drought of 9:16. Archie Miller’s team missed some open shots, yes, but the work from Northwestern’s defense was absolutely outstanding. The Wildcats put a heavily pro-Dayton crowd into stunned silence for a good portion of the first 20 minutes.

“I'm just kind of starting my fourth year now,” Chris Collins said post-game. “It's probably the best half of basketball that we've played on both ends, you know, in my time coaching at Northwestern. To hold that team to 4 for 28 from the floor, for us to score 40 points and shoot 52% from the field against a really hard-nosed defense, I thought was just a great 20 minutes.”

So how did the Wildcats do it? The offensive output is one thing — and we’ve seen the Wildcats be very good on that end — but the defensive effort was unprecedented. But it wasn’t anything extraordinary. Rather, the Northwestern perimeter defenders played smartly and aggressively, and the interior defenders were on time for their rotations. The result: Dayton scored its fewest points in a half to date this season, nine fewer than its 26-point first half versus St. Mary’s.

(NOTE: All video courtesy of Big Ten Network and available on BTN2go)

Aggressive play against screens and doubling the post

One of the first possessions showed three tendencies that would play important roles in this game. First, Dayton was going to look to push the ball up the court. The Flyers are 155th in the nation in adjusted tempo: certainly not fast by any means. On this night, though, getting the ball up the court to get into early offense was a point of emphasis. Second, Northwestern would play perimeter screens very aggressively, going over them rather than under. Third, the Wildcats planned to double the post, something that Dayton struggled to adjust to.

When you have athletes like Vic Law and versatile defenders like Sanjay Lumpkin, you can afford to do that. The duo plays it perfectly here. Then, the third part comes into play. Barret Benson, well-positioned near the free-throw line, crashes down on Kendall Pollard (No. 25) as soon as he posts up on Lumpkin. Pollard is a post scorer, and when Benson collapses, he can’t get to the middle of the lane nor pass out of the post around or over the 6-foot-10 Benson. It results in a difficult turnaround jumper.

Part I: Aggressive play on screens

A second example of Northwestern’s defensive exploits is shown above. Bryant McIntosh and Law are both quick enough to get over screens with minimal help. When Charles Cooke, the Flyers’ leading scorer, drives baseline and gets cut off — this time by phenomenal help defense from Lumpkin — Scottie Lindsey, in perfect position after fulfilling his rotational duties, baits Cooke into throwing a guaranteed turnover.

It’s also worth noting that the two players involved in defending the screening action have to be in sync. That’s the case below when Lindsey goes over the screen and falls a bit behind his man.

Benson does a really good job of showing and taking up space by extending his arms. Instead of Scoochie Smith (No. 11) turning the corner and looking to attack or drop a dime to Xeyrius Williams (No. 20), he has to pass out to the perimeter, and Dayton settles for a low-percentage deep three.

Benson’s good positioning prevents Smith from turning the corner, and his length prevents Smith from slipping a pass into Williams.

Part II: Doubling the post and post help

As shown in the first video in this piece, doubling the post was a new wrinkle to the Northwestern defensive gameplan. With plenty of capable finishers, Dayton presented a challenge. But the Wildcats were well-schooled in the post and challenged shots without fouling. Miller praised the Wildcats for being “very tough around the rim.” The Wildcats, despite being without their best shot-blocker, Dererk Pardon, recorded six blocks, five of which came in the first half.

Here’s one good example of doubling in in the post, even though it doesn’t result in a block:

Nathan Taphorn gets caught over-helping. The senior does a decent job recovering to Sam Miller (No. 2), but Miller still drives the baseline. Gavin Skelly recognizes this early, and when Miller spins to try to make a skip pass, he’s met by the Wildcats’ big man, who does a good job keeping his hands straight up. The Flyers instead have to kick it back out and start the offense anew.

Twice later in the half, Northwestern does collect a block, even after the perimeter man gets blown by.

In this first example, it’s Taphorn, probably the team’s slowest lateral defender, giving up baseline position. He recovers well and does a good job of going straight up, but it’s Skelly again who rotates over quickly to deny Miller.

The next perimeter guy guilty is Law.

Cooke rips through instead of going around the screen as most Flyers had done up to that point. He gets a step on Law and looks to be getting to the foul line at the very least. But Lumpkin, whose man set the screen Cooke rejected, quickly leaves his assignment and Benson slides over. Cooke gets stuffed completely cleanly: Benson uses the law of verticality to his advantage and collects one of his two blocks on the evening.

Northwestern’s perimeter defense was outstanding all night. But what made this defense outstanding for 20 minutes was that aggressive play complemented the timely, intelligent interior defense.

Hustle and smarts: Stymying the attack

At its core, defense is about want-to. Coaches can draw up schemes, but they can’t go out there and bother opponents every possession; only players can do that. But when the correct gameplan is in place and a team is well-prepared, turning that effort into results is much easier.

Northwestern drew several charges throughout the night, much to the chagrin of the Flyer faithful. Similar to defense as a whole, drawing charges is a matter of willingness to dedicate oneself to stopping the opponent. It’s certainly one of the less fun (and sometimes more painful) aspects of defense, but it can be a game-changer, especially against a team like Dayton that was aggressive going to the basket.

This charge, one of two Isiah Brown took, is a combination of willingness and good gameplanning. The offensively gung-ho guard generally did a good job on the defensive end, and this is certainly no exception.

Pollard catches the ball in the high post (an advantageous position) with half a step on Taphorn. Even with Benson rotating over to help, this is either going to be a foul or a ball that goes out off Northwestern. Instead, Brown, sags way off John Crosby (No. 15) and is in prime position to step in and take the charge. Physically, it’s a great play by Brown, but it also shows his mental preparation. Crosby has shot just six threes all year (and made just two). Pollard, who averages double figures, is a much bigger threat at the elbow than Crosby is beyond the arc. It’s a good play from Brown, and a smart one, too.

Northwestern’s effort Saturday night was far from a complete one. The Wildcats struggled mightily in the second half in just about every facet offensively. Despite one of its worst halves of the year, though, the team was able to hold on for a victory thanks to the 23-point advantage it built in the first half, largely on the back of a fantastic defensive effort.