Sometime within the past few weeks, I got a text from a player on a Big Ten basketball team that I know well. He asked me what I thought about the game that occurred between his team and Northwestern the night before. I told him that I was surprised his coach didn't use certain tactics earlier in the game. He agreed. Then I asked him what his coaches focused on about Northwestern in the lead up to the game, although I already suspected I knew the answer.
Get the ball out of Bryant McIntosh's hands, he responded. Know where Tre Demps is.
You can talk about a weak non-conference schedule. You can mention injuries. You can take to social media to argue about Northwestern's future and what the present indicates about a program whose reputation as an up-and-comer has preceded the talent to match that reputation.
All those things are both fun and aggravating to talk about.
But what my friend mentioned to me in those text messages confirms Northwestern's biggest on-court issue, with this collection of talent: predictability.
When you boil basketball down to short sequences, the goal of an offensive set is to force defenders to make choices. Do I defend the ball or my man? Do I take one more step to my left to help on a potential drive or do I stay at home against a good outside shooter? Do I switch or do I hedge?
What good offenses do is seek out those choices, anticipate them, and then be prepared and have the ability to exploit any wrong choice or hesitation a defender makes.
Putting "good" offensive sets aside (because there are many of them and yes, Northwestern does run some "good" sets), one way to keep defenders on their heels is for offenses to vary themselves on a game-to-game, possession-to-possession basis.
What that means is not that Northwestern needs to run conceptually different offenses each time down the floor, but rather for Northwestern to incorporate varied offensive concepts (pick-and-rolls, post-ups, pin-downs, high-low action, flare screens, etc.) into possessions. Head coach Chris Collins already has crafted an offense that includes all of those concepts and more, but in Big Ten play especially, when defenses are more keyed in on what Northwestern tries to do, the Wildcat offense has too often devolved into one-on-one play and late-in-clock pick-and-rolls. It's "hero ball."
That issue stems from a variety of things, but the most concerning among them is Northwestern's lack of a secondary ball-handler. Coming into the season, Northwestern had plans to play Tre Demps at point guard, allowing Bryant McIntosh more rest and to play off the ball, where he can also be effective as a catch-and-shoot or catch-and-drive option. Yet, as we near the final few games of the season, there is little evidence that Collins fully trusts Demps as a point guard. And, that's not a knock on either of them. In theory, Demps should be a point guard. When he went to the Nike Basketball Academy over the summer, NBA personnel told him he needed to play more point guard. Listed at 6-foot-3, it's clear his size indicates he should play the smaller of the two guard positions. But the senior's playing style and strengths indicate differently.
Demps is a volume scorer and a volume scorer Northwestern desperately needs. But he doesn't have the floor vision requisite of a lead guard. He's a head down, dribble hard, pull up or attack type of player as opposed to a head-up, survey the floor, probe and react type of player.
What that often leads to is predictability after Northwestern runs through its first offensive set. If a team forces McIntosh to give up the ball, the defense knows it's almost always going to Demps, who, more often than not, taps his head for a ball screen or raises two fingers for a double ball screen. From there, well, an exciting variety of outcomes can occur.
Look at what Purdue did, for example, in Northwestern's hard-fought, 10-point loss in West Lafayette on Feb. 16. Throughout the game, Boilermaker head coach Matt Painter stuck a man on McIntosh up and down the court. The sophomore deferred to Demps, who was forced to bring the ball up the court. Far too often the ball would fail to swing for more than a rotation or two, allowing the defense to stand pat. When ball movement stalls, player movement stalls and the drive-and-kick lanes that Northwestern—and, in essence, every team—needs on offense disappear.
Purdue did what it did all night: force Demps to become Northwestern's primary ball-handler, taking him out of what he does best and taking McIntosh's biggest strength—his floor vision—away from him. What results is a phenomenon that has happened far too often this conference season. This Northwestern possession consists of three players and three players only and takes place exclusively on the left side of the floor. Demps, Aaron Falzon and Dererk Pardon operate while McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey stand idly on the opposite side of the floor. There is no spacing. There is no offensive development, just two ball screens (and a lot of dribbling) that go absolutely no where before Falzon rattles home an improbable turnaround floater/jump shot thanks to the friendliest of bounces.
Against the Boilermakers, it almost seemed like Northwestern's offense just swung the ball around the perimeter aimlessly in anticipation of a late-shot clock pick-and-roll, hoping that Demps and/or McIntosh could knock down a low-percentage shot. Hero ball indeed.
With a second ball-handler alongside McIntosh, Northwestern could continue to run its offense and continue to incorporate all the cuts, screens and other actions it contains. With Demps manning the point, though, the Wildcats take themselves out of their offense. The defense is no longer forced to make choices, but can rather key on the inevitable: a high ball screen with ten seconds or so left on the shot clock.
The concerning thing about this issue moving forward, is that it doesn't seem like Northwestern has a reliable ball-handling partner on future rosters. Jordan Ash, a freshman, has played sparingly and is still too inexperienced to adequately run a Big Ten offense for stretches. Sure, he could develop, but he doesn't seem like a player that could play alongside McIntosh in the next few seasons, but rather as a substitute in short spurts.
Lindsey, who has played his best basketball of late, figures to see his role as a two-guard expand next season as Demps exits. But his game, clearly, is that of a slashing and shooting guard. Vic Law, who is injured this season, fits the mold of an athletic swingman, but Collins and others insist they could see him as a secondary ball-handler to McIntosh. That theory, though, remains unproven. Next season, the Wildcats will bring in current high school senior guard Isiah Brown from Seattle, the only guard in the recruiting class. Maybe he could be that secondary ball-handler Northwestern needs. But, as seen with Ash, freshman guards often have a tough, tough time in their inaugural seasons in one of the nation's premier conferences.
So, what's a quick fix for this issue? Running the offense through the post. Alex Olah has proven throughout the past couple of seasons to be a good passer and decision-maker from the block and the elbow.
(Note: This could be my favorite play of the year.)
What going to the post does, is bend the defense inward automatically. A clean post touch forces defenders to take notice of where the ball is and at least acknowledge Northwestern has the ball in a position to score immediately. Purdue, for example, was able to contain Northwestern on the perimeter in part because everything was happening both in a predictable manner and because it was happening in front of them. Actions were easy to see and the right choices became easier to make.
Was the freshman Pardon realistically going to go to work against senior A.J. Hammons on the block? Not a chance. But by entering the ball into him and sending Falzon through the lane, the Boilermakers' defense had to make a choice. Should Caleb Swanigan stay with Falzon and follow him through to the corner? Or should he show some pressure on Pardon in the post?
Swanigan tries to swipe the ball as Pardon dribbles and Northwestern takes advantage. Sensing the double team, Pardon quickly kicks the ball out to Lindsey, who immediately swings the ball to McIntosh. Without hesitation, McIntosh sees the play develop and finds Falzon in the corner where Hammons, who had to switch on to him because of Swanigan's decision to double the post, is far too late to adequately contest Falzon's shot.
Is it perfect offense? No. But it presented Purdue with choices. Let's say Swanigan resists the temptation to double Pardon and follows Falzon. Then, the responsibility falls on Ryan Cline (No. 14) to stop Pardon from getting to his left hand. If Cline steps deeper into the lane, Pardon has an easy kick-out to Lindsey for an open triple at the top of the key.
As the season winds down and Northwestern tries to make a push for an unlikely NIT berth, it will have to become more varied on offense. Taking away McIntosh and forcing Demps to run the offense is too easy a scouting report for opposing teams. So Collins and his staff will have to get creative with their offense, giving a glimpse of how they plan to solve an offensive predictability problem that could persist for the next few seasons if it goes unaddressed.