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Northwestern uses length, athleticism to power rejuvenated defense

The Wildcats shut down Peter Jok and Iowa. Here’s how.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

On January 31, 2016, Vic Law sat in street clothes on the bench, his arm in a sling, watching Peter Jok score 22 points in the first nine or so minutes of the second half. As the lead ballooned to 25 points, it was clear that Northwestern simply had no answer for the talented guard, who finished with 28 points that day in Iowa City, nor could it stop Jarrod Uthoff, now in the NBA Development League, who scored 21. Iowa, then a top five team in the nation, won 85-71, but at times in the second half, that lead approached 30.

On January 15, 2017, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey combined for 36 points. Peter Jok sat on the bench for most of the second half having scored four points all night, his worst effort this season, and his lowest output since he scored just four against Drake on December 19... of 2015. The Wildcats’ lead hit 20. Then 30. It ended up at 35. It was dominant. It was stunning. It was, to be quite honest, beautiful.

Yes, Iowa lost a ton from last year’s squad. Yes, it was just one game against a very young, talented team coming off a big win over Purdue. But the parallels between the two games could not have been more clear.

But back to Jok. The Wildcats couldn’t have been much worse against him last year. They couldn’t have been much better against him this year. And that’s a credit to Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law. Law drew the initial assignment, and he performed admirably. When he was out, Lindsey was in guarding the Big Ten’s leading scorer. Both were magnificent all game.

“He scares you,” head coach Chris Collins said of Jok. “I thought our principles were pretty good. I thought we stayed connected to him. We tried to find him in transition.”

Consider that game plan executed to near perfection.

From the beginning, it was clear that if Northwestern were to lose, it wouldn’t be because of Jok. Law wouldn’t let Jok get to the spots he wanted to. In the above clip, notice how Law is right up on Jok even though he’s not the first pass away — typically a place where one would play help defense. Instead, Law stays right with the talented shooting guard, making him work very hard just for a really difficult shot.

Law was also excellent in maintaining his discipline. Jok loves to draw fouls — he gets to the line nearly five time per contest — but with Law and others not biting for shot fakes and instead going straight up, he didn’t get there once against the Wildcats.

To slow down an elite scorer, though, it can’t be a one-man effort. Enter Scottie Lindsey, whose enormous growth as a defender cannot be overstated. The junior, who was challenged by Collins to become a better two-way player this summer, was equally effective on Jok. Watch Lindsey fight through a screen to get right back on the Sudan native and eventually get a steal.

That clip above shows another impressive aspect from Northwestern’s win: the post defense. The Wildcats instituted a post trap against Tyler Cook, the talented freshman who does most of his damage in the paint, and it worked very well. The Wildcats’ length — Dererk Pardon, Lindsey and Law specifically — caused major problems.

But a post double is only as good as the rotations that follow, and against the Hawkeyes, both were outstanding. Law correctly rotates down to cover Pardon’s vacated spot. Pardon’s outstanding length prevents Cook from making the long skip pass to Law’s original assignment, and Cook’s only option is to reset up top.

It’s worth mentioning Pardon for his outstanding defensive effort. He was active on the glass and very good in space. How many big men can do this...

and then do this, forcing one of the nation’s best scorers to settle for a long contested three?

Everyone was locked in on Jok. During the game, the broadcasters talked about assistant coach Armon Gates wearing a giant No. 14 during shootaround, when teams make their final adjustments and preparations. Watch how quickly Bryant McIntosh recognizes a screen and latches onto Jok, who fires up an errant shot from an awful angle under duress.

And below, Gavin Skelly cuts off the baseline on the first screen. On the second, he does a great job staying attached to Jok after Lindsey goes for the pump fake, showing great awareness and reacting quickly.

It takes a team effort to stop an elite scorer. Iowa needs Jok to score at a high rate every game; it simply doesn’t have the weapons around him who can create their own offense. Six of Northwestern’s eight players who played meaningful minutes posted an offensive rating above 100. Only two Hawkeyes — Ryan Kreiner and Tyler Cook — reached that threshold. The Hawkeyes, who came in scoring at a clip of 1.06 points per possession, recorded a paltry 0.79 against the Wildcats.

This wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary this season, though. Northwestern is putting up the best defensive numbers it ever has since Collins’ first recruiting class — Law, Lindsey, McIntosh, Skelly, and Johnnie Vassar — arrived in Evanston.

Defensive improvement 2014/15-2016/17

Year Adjusted defensive efficiency ranking Opponent efficient FG% Points per possession allowed
Year Adjusted defensive efficiency ranking Opponent efficient FG% Points per possession allowed
2014-2015 151 48.4 0.995
2015-2016 87 46.5 0.98
2016-2017 43 43.3 0.912
Stats available on and

What really sticks out is the opponent efficient field goal percentage. This year, that 43.3 precent figure ranks ninth in all of college basketball.

Northwestern’s defense was terrific all night against an elite scorer and his supporting cast. While it might have been the pinnacle defensive performance this season, it certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary for a team thats defense has been simply outstanding this entire season, a far cry from what it had been in years past.