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Film: Looking into Northwestern’s late-game execution

Taking care of the ball and staying aggressive offensively will help the Wildcats close out games

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern vs Dayton Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, did you know Northwestern is the only major power conference team to never make the NCAA Tournament? Oh you did? Does that happen to be the obsession of every Northwestern basketball fan? It does? Who would’ve thought?!

In all seriousness, this year’s Northwestern team is, as they say, actually good. Wins over Texas, Wake Forest and Dayton, coupled with admirable performances against Butler and Notre Dame, have fans and bracketologists alike thinking about the possibility of the Wildcats playing in the Big Dance.

But Northwestern lost those games to Butler and Notre Dame, both of which were winnable. Quite frankly, Northwestern probably should have won. The Wildcats held the lead near the end of both games, but key mistakes down the stretch doomed Northwestern to bitter defeats.

There’s no doubt the team is close to where it wants to be. They’ve played their way into some national recognition, but these 2016-17 Wildcats have a long way to go if they want be the team that breaks the curse. Executing at the end of games—specifically breaking the press more consistently and moving the ball offensively late in games—will put the team in prime position to close out games and add valuable wins to its resume.

Here’s how Northwestern can improve in crunch time:

Facing the press

The first—and most important—part of breaking a press is inbounding the ball, and this played a major role in the Notre Dame game.

Northwestern fans will hate to see this particular inbounds play again, but it was a key play at the end of the game.

As Taphorn gets the ball, Isiah Brown runs to the short corner, Bryant McIntosh runs to the far corner and Scottie Lindsey floats in the middle. The play came after a Fighting Irish foul, so Taphorn couldn’t run the baseline. As you watch the clip, you’ll see that Notre Dame decides to play man-to-man and guard the inbounder, in this case Taphorn, front Lindsey and play tight on the backs of Brown and McIntosh.


There are a couple of things to note here.

First, Taphorn could’ve called one of the Wildcats’ two remaining timeouts. And in fact, so could’ve Chris Collins because of a new NCAA rule.

As for the press break itself, what dooms this play is spacing.

Three players all run toward the ball at the same time, which condenses the space to throw the ball in. In hindsight, calling a timeout would’ve been the best course of action, but if Taphorn was going to throw the ball in, Isiah Brown is probably the best option, as opposed to the overhead lob pass to a player who is being fronted in the middle of the court with defenders lurking all around.

Even if Brown had gotten the ball, though, he would’ve be deep in the corner with a trap coming. Either way, Taphorn threw the ball into no man’s land. Notre Dame point guard Matt Farrell took the ball in for a three-point play and the Wildcats suffered a brutal loss in the Legends Classic final.

All clips below are via

The next series of clips come from the second half of Dayton game at the United center, in which the Wildcats staved off a furious late comeback from the Flyers to earn a major non-conference win against a perennial Tournament team.

In the first clip, Northwestern is inbounding the ball against Dayton after a Flyers’ turnover. Vic Law is the inbounder, and again Northwestern sends a player to each corner, something that seems to be a staple of the team’s press break.

Law throws the ball into Bryant McIntosh in the short corner, and McIntosh smartly sees the trap coming and throws the ball back to Law, who runs into a gap in the center of the floor. But, Law continues to run up the floor as the pass is coming, rather than sitting in the vacant gap. He doesn’t see Scoochie Smith coming from behind, and Smith keenly pokes the ball out and calmly drains a three.

Again, it would have served Law better to stay closer to McIntosh and the center of the floor so he could see more of the court. But because he doesn’t see the defender in the first place, he keeps going, and the play results in a turnover. The ensuing Smith three-pointer made the last minute-and-a-half a lot more stressful than it needed to be.

The idea on this play was right, but it lacked the patience and composure to navigate the Flyers’ tough full-court pressure.

The next clip come from moments later.

On this particular play, Vic Law is inbounding the ball again. Law runs the baseline, but, after several seconds doesn’t like what he sees and calls timeout.

Once Law gets the ball from the official, Isiah Brown and Bryant McIntosh cross, but neither player makes a hard cut to the ball, partly because there are defenders playing zone on both sides of the floor. Two Dayton defenders are able to take away three Northwestern players (Brown, McIntosh and Sanjay Lumpkin) on the play.

Because Law can run the baseline, Brown, McIntosh and Lumpkin need to spread out so that the two Flyers in the area can’t cover all three. But because the floor is so condensed, it takes longer for Brown—and Gavin Skelly further up the floor—to come open, and Law is forced into calling a timeout.

As mentioned earlier, using a timeout in this situation is much better than turning the ball over on a forced pass or a five-second call. So this play wasn’t the worst thing in the world given the circumstances, but it serves as another example of the Wildcats failing to get the ball in bounds.

The next clip is the subsequent in-bound after the Law timeout.

This time, the spacing is much better, with McIntosh and Brown on opposite sides of the floor, which creates a two-on-one situation once Gavin Skelly cuts toward Brown. Brown comes open after a Skelly screen, and then dribbles through the press after getting the ball from Law.

Maintaining spacing and incorporating screen action into the team’s press break should help cut out turnovers down the stretch of games.

Late-game offense

Another phase that is crucial to Northwestern finishing games is its late-game offensive execution. Scoring late in games goes hand-in-hand with breaking the press, but playing conservatively after a press-break—or looking to burn clock and opt for a shot near the end of the shot-clock— has been all-too-common for Northwestern.

Take the last video clip from above, where Isiah Brown dribbles through the press. The image below shows Brown with the ball just after crossing half-court. With a defender pinned on his back, he has a possible three-on-one, or at least three-on-two opportunity.


Yet, Brown—typically an uber-aggressive player— slows up, knowing he’ll probably get fouled (which he was).

Although he was fouled, Brown’s decision is emblematic of how Northwestern typically operates after breaking a press, even if there’s more time on the clock and its opponent isn’t in a position where it has to foul.

When the Wildcats have attacked after breaking a press, the results have been good.

In the Wake Forest game, for example, Northwestern broke the press in textbook fashion leading to an easy score. The Demon Deacons didn’t deny the ball in the same way Notre Dame or Dayton did, which allowed Scottie Lindsey catch the ball closer to the center of the court.

The Deacon help came late, and Lumpkin was so wide-open that he basically had to score, but the idea still applies. Getting an easy look at two points, rather than shooting pressure-filled free throws, is the higher-percentage play.

Looking to score first, and pulling the ball back if an easy opportunity doesn’t present itself, is how Northwestern should go about its offense post press-break. Allowing the defense to set itself puts the Wildcats in tougher half-court situations, especially with increased ball pressure at the end of games.

But when Northwestern does have the ball in the half court, as it inevitably will in many games, ball movement is the key to success.

In the Wake Forest game, when McIntosh was on fire, the team’s best late-game possession came when multiple players were touching the ball and dishing to their teammates.

The play starts with a high pick-and-roll between McIntosh and Skelly, as it often does. McIntosh gets trapped after the screen, and smartly throws the ball back to an open Skelly, who drives and kicks the ball to Law, who also attacks off the dribble before finding Scottie Lindsey. The ball then ends up back McIntosh’s hands for a wide-open three.

Northwestern is one of the best passing teams in the country, ranking seventh nationally in assist to turnover ratio. This unselfish style is what makes the team’s offense go, so the end of games should be no different.

Head coach Chris Collins trusts McIntosh with the ball, and often gives him the green-light to make plays at the end of games. However, expecting McIntosh to single-handedly break down a defense after pounding the ball for 20 seconds at the top of the key is unfair to the point guard, and the talented players around him.

For example, in the Chicago State game. McIntosh has the ball in his hands for the first 23 or so seconds of the possession, before finding Skelly after a slip screen.

The play worked, and the result was probably one of the best ways that possession could’ve gone. But, a better opponent probably doesn’t leave Skelly that open. It’s hard to criticize a successful possession, but a successful possession on a given occasion doesn’t necessarily mean the approach was optimal.

A few minutes earlier in the Chicago State game, the offense started earlier in the clock, and shredded the Cougars’ zone defense with a series of passes.

McIntosh uses the Skelly screen, but because there’s more time on the clock, a shot doesn’t need to come directly from the pick-and-roll. Skelly—a skilled passer from the post—dishes to Scottie Lindsey on the wing before Lindsey makes a great extra pass to Vic Law in the corner for a great look.

The ball doesn’t always move as much in crunch time as it should, part of which can be attributed to Collins’s immense trust in McIntosh. Some of this strategy is probably Collins trying to avoid a game-deciding mistake from his young team.

Though young, the Wildcats are good enough to break teams down late in games. Ideally, the ball swings from side to side, and if an open shot doesn’t present itself, then McIntosh calls for a high-screen-and-roll as a bail-out late in the clock.

Moving the ball moves defenders, and moving defenders creates space and driving lanes for McIntosh, Law and Lindsey to go work. And with McIntosh struggling with his shot of late, more ball movement to generate easier looks isn’t the worst idea in late-game scenarios.

This Northwestern team isn’t the team of previous years. It has had late leads in every game sans the Michigan State game this season, which is new territory. There’s something to be said for knowing how to play with a lead, and that comes with experience. A more challenging non-conference schedule has given the team that kind of experience, but conference play is a different animal, and the grind of Big Ten play will put the inexperienced Wildcats to the test.

And if the Wildcats can survive enough close games to build a solid résumé of victories, a forever illusory invitation might land on their doorstop.