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FILM ROOM: Northwestern rides swarming defense to upset over Wisconsin

Chris Collins is Luke Skywalker.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday night in Madison, Northwestern basketball, both in the context of the 2016-2017 season and the program’s history, faced a moment of reckoning. In the midst of a demoralizing two-game losing streak and without its leading scorer, the Wildcats would have to put on an inspired performance on the road against No. 7 Wisconsin for their NCAA tournament aspirations to get the boost of a big-time win they needed.

To make a long story short, they did just that.

A galvanized Bryant McIntosh and an outstanding team defensive effort drove Northwestern’s success Sunday night, but both of these developments go against trends that have come to fruition since losing Scottie Lindsey. The negative impacts of the junior guard’s absence have echoed through every phase of the game for Northwestern; a bump in minutes and offensive responsibility for McIntosh and Vic Law and slotting Isiah Brown into the starting lineup have left the Wildcats less efficient offensively and undersized defensively. In Northwestern’s first two games without Lindsey, opponents shot 47.6 percent from three and out-assisted the Wildcats by an average margin of 8.5 dimes per game.

Thus, a trip to Wisconsin assuredly spelled doom for the visitors. The Badgers boast a trio of devastating offensive weapons: Ethan Happ, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, each of whom posed unique challenges to Chris Collins from a coaching perspective. Collins, though, chose to hone in primarily on Happ in the team’s defensive game plan.

Happ is a dominant low-post scorer and passer in one-on-one scenarios. His team-high usage rate of 27 percent on the season proves his worth as a catalyst of much of what Wisconsin likes to do offensively. Happ’s unique skill set, supplemented by an arsenal of shooters and cutters around him, is a crucial part of what makes the Badgers so dangerous.

But against Northwestern, he was nothing more than the faulty reactor to the Death Star that is Wisconsin’s offense. And by removing him from the equation, Collins ensured that Greg Gard’s aforementioned array of weapons would implode with him.

Getting by with a little help from their friends:

From the opening tip, it was clear that Collins was not going to allow his side to be bullied inside by Happ, as many opponents have in his years as a Badger. On virtually every post touch the senior center had throughout the contest, another Wildcat would immediately swarm to meet him, ideally getting there before he could pivot or put the ball on the floor.

Here is an example of the double team executed to perfection. As soon as Happ catches the ball, Gavin Skelly scampers from his assignment and, along with Barrett Benson, pins Happ into the corner, cutting him off from the rest of the play. Once Happ puts the ball on the floor, he’s toast. Benson effectively walls off the baseline and with Skelly sandwiching him, kicking it to either Hayes or Brevin Pritzl at the top of the key becomes impossible. Law and McIntosh work in conjunction to clog passing lanes to a cutting Vitto Brown and Koenig, who is waving his arms in the far corner. The play ends in Happ calling a timeout, the only conceivable outcome other than a turnover.

It’s plays like this that give credence to Collins’ praise of his side’s defensive communication post-game. But there are, of course, cons to using the double team as aggressively as Collins chose to. If the second defender arrives a split-second late or the other three defender’s rotations are half-a-second slow, Happ has the passing ability to pick Northwestern apart.

In this clip, Lumpkin attempts to lull Happ into a sense of false security by hesitating before bringing the double, but he over-lurches and, because Happ still has his dribble, the Badger big-man is able to effortlessly step around him and into open space in the middle of the floor. McIntosh makes perhaps the gravest mistake on the play by wrongly anticipating Happ skipping it to Vitto Brown, who instead dives towards the rim, leaving McIntosh flat-footed and out of position as Koenig slides into Brown’s place at the top of the arc. Law then rotates to cover McIntosh’s assignment and Zak Showalter is left wide open in the corner for the easy triple.

But you live with these mistakes for the psychological impact that this type of constant pressure can have on a player. Happ, rather uncharacteristically, turned the ball over four times on the night and often appeared jittery when forced into quick decisions.

The top clip actually results in an open look for Wisconsin. Despite Skelly immediately hounding Happ, the Wisconsin big man gets off an arrant jump-pass in the direction of Koening, who is, again, open in the corner. However, due to the ferocity of the double team and Happ’s overeagerness to be rid of the ball, the pass veers to the left. Koenig still hauls it in and gets a decent shot off, but the inaccuracy of the pass allows McIntosh to recover and contest the look in addition to Koenig being forced to shoot slightly out of rhythm.

The play depicted in the bottom clip actually occurs directly after the timeout Happ was forced to call that we explicated earlier. Happ anticipates an impending double team and immediately dribbles away from Lumpkin, only to be cut off by Dererk Pardon. As Lumpkin approaches, Happ leans and attempts a reckless skip-pass to Brown in the far corner, which is tipped and intercepted by Law. The potential of the double-team, even when not immediately present, can affect a player’s decision making. This fact is apparent here.

It is also worth mentioning that the insertion of Nathan Taphorn into the starting lineup was a key part of this strategy being possible. Aside from the sharp-shooting he brings, playing Taphorn at the four allowed Collins to slide Lumpkin and Law up a position, giving Northwestern the necessary length to effectively double team Happ all night and successfully occupy the passing channels Happ might have looked to utilize.

The art of the double-team is a nuanced and precise one. When executed correctly, the incessant pressure can burst an opposing offense’s pipes and when executed sloppily, it can leave your defense out of position and helpless. You take the good with the bad when you choose to play as aggressively as Collins did Sunday night.

And luckily for Northwestern, more often than not, this defensive strategy neutralized perhaps Wisconsin most versatile and dangerous offensive weapon. In spurts, the ineffectiveness (which in turn often led to the absence) of Happ, whom the Badgers often rely upon so heavily, crumbled the Badgers offense.

Northwestern was putrid defensively against Purdue and almost as bad against Illinois. But the mark of a good team — and a well-coached one at that — is the ability to adapt. In planning for Wisconsin, Collins did what a struggling, underdog team fighting for their lives should do: attacked the opponent’s offense at its source. And thanks to this aggressiveness, Northwestern got itself back on track.

Of course, Collins and the rest of Northwestern’s defense will need to continue to adapt, especially with Lindsey’s return not as imminent as was once thought. But for a minute, just a minute, let’s revel in what the team’s stout defensive performance in Madison on Sunday means for a program so maligned throughout its history.

With the win, with this season defining win, the Wildcats snatched back control of their season from the clutches of what this fan base has become accustomed to and re-asserted themselves in a big way.

Now it’s on to Maryland.