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Northwestern’s offense wasn’t just ugly, it was lazy, too

The Wildcats made five field goals in the entire second half.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

On the long and dark stretch of road back from Champaign that had followed a long and dark stretch of Northwestern basketball, I posed a question to one of my friends sitting across the aisle on the student bus the athletic department had graciously provided. I hadn’t been at the State Farm Center as a member of the media but rather just as a fan, with a free ride and ticket in hand, so I didn’t have any stats with me.

“How many shots did Northwestern make in the second half?”

We started with recency bias: “Well Taphorn hit that three at the end.”

From there, we guessed.

“BMac must’ve had a floater or two.”

“Pardon had a putback maybe.”

“Brown knocked down a jumper.”

“Skelly played well, I think he had one.”

In that five-sentence exchange that took no more than 30 seconds, we had covered it. All five of Northwestern’s field goals — out of 27 attempts — including its lone three-pointer, had been discussed. In the most miserable half of basketball this team has produced, we chuckled a bit at the pure ridiculousness of what we had just watched and settled back into our seats.

The first half had been bad, too, but thanks to Bryant McIntosh’s attacking the lane and some late threes from Gavin Skelly and Isiah Brown, the visitors only trailed by one, 32-33. That was despite eight turnovers, shooting 44.8 percent from the field and Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law Jr. shooting 1 of 8 combined. The second half, though, in which the Wildcats tallied a single assist and missed 22 of their 27 shots, was unbelievably bad. Even worse than that, it was also lazy.

The Wildcats and the Illini started the half cold, combining for two points — a Leron Black jumper on the first possession of the half, no less — by the under-16. After that, Northwestern managed to get it going a bit, scoring field goals on three of its next four possessions, but the offense ground to a halt after that. A McIntosh floater over Maverick Morgan at the 10:27 mark was the second-to-last shot the Wildcats would make that evening. The final one came over nine minutes later with the game well out of hand.

The Wildcats’ issues stemmed not only from missed open shots — of which there were plenty — but also a distinct lack of movement, both of the players and of the ball. The latter is far more concerning than the former. The first offensive possession of the half set the tone quite well.

(All video via BTN2go)

It’s not a horrible look for McIntosh, who likes to take pull-up jumpers while dribbling to his left, but the possession as a whole is an eyesore. At one point, he and Law stand right next to each other. The lack of movement and spacing off the ball foreshadowed what was to come.

It wasn’t pretty. Northwestern continued to struggle as its only offense became a pick and roll with whoever the ball handler was. It’s a concept that’s supposed to be run early in the offense to get the ball and players rotating. It’s not supposed to be an offensive set.

In the first example, Brown and Lindsey stand idly to McIntosh’s left, in no way a threat to receive a pass, get a rebound or even create some movement with a simple cut. They’re both shuffling backward as their point guard tosses up another difficult shot. In the second example, McIntosh simply takes and misses an open jumper (although it’s an inefficient long two). But that possession shows another issue emerging: Northwestern runs its sets far too slowly and far too far away from the basket. Here’s where McIntosh starts with the ball, with 27 seconds on the clock:

And here’s where he is eight seconds later, after a half-hearted attempt to post up Skelly, Law unable to get it to him and absolutely no off-ball movement.

No wonder Northwestern brands itself as Chicago’s Big Ten Team. According to the Illinois state outline on the State Farm Center, that’s where the Wildcats ran their offense from all night.

On the possession below, Northwestern doesn’t even bother getting the ball somewhat close to the paint. Brown is the only player who enters inside the three-point line with the ball, and his pass is too low for Lumpkin to do much with it once he catches it. The Wildcats run through the motions for 19 seconds, and when McIntosh receives the ball near that state logo again — this time he’s somewhere near where Illinois meets Kentucky and Missouri — he has few other options but to shoot. Again, note how many people stand still on the perimeter.

On several occasions, one pass would have constituted “good” ball movement. On nine separate possessions in the second half, Northwestern didn’t make a single pass before shooting. The team totaled four points on those nine possessions for an abysmal .44 points per possession, and two of those points came via free throws on a Law drive in transition. The other two points came on the aforementioned incredibly difficult McIntosh baseline runner over Morgan, fittingly the last field goal Northwestern would make until the game was all but over. In the example below, Brown drives into the trees while Taphorn and Skelly hardly move and Lindsey isn’t even in the frame.

The play-by-play log is shockingly bad, but the stats behind the possessions are even worse: In the second half, Northwestern averaged fewer than two passes per possession and threw the ball inside the three-point line just six times. Six! The results of those six possessions in which the ball was passed inside the arc: two of five, one foul drawn and the lone assist of the half. Of the three misses, two (a Law three from the wing and a Lindsey floater) were very good looks. Here’s what happens when the ball enters the post:

Pardon sets two very good screens after the ball goes inside-out, and the spacing is significantly improved from any clip above. Brown gets a wide open look. Did the team have other good looks that it simply missed? Yes. But getting the ball inside forces the defense to move and facilitates offense by itself. Here’s how Northwestern’s offensive possessions looked from a standpoint of number of passes, number of passes inside the three-point line, results and score. (NOTE: Inbounds passes and passes between two players in their own backcourt do not count)

Second half possession chart

Passes Passes inside three-point arc Result Score?
Passes Passes inside three-point arc Result Score?
5 1 McIntosh missed three
3 1 Lindsey missed floater
0 0 McIntosh turnover on first pass
0 0 Brown turnover on dribble
1 1 Pardon draws foul
0 0 McIntosh missed fadeaway
3 0 Brown missed push shot
0 0 Law draws shooting foul, makes both FT 34-35
2 1 Entry pass to Pardon deflected
1 0 Brown miss, Pardon putback GOOD 36-37
5 1 Brown pull-up GOOD 38-39
1 0 Law missed three in transition
1 0 Poked away from Pardon
2 0 Brown turnover on second pass
4 1 Skelly dunk GOOD 40-42
2 0 Lindsey missed three
3 0 McIntosh missed pull-up
2 1 Law missed three
0 0 McIntosh floater GOOD 42-45
2 0 McIntosh missed floater
1 0 Law draws foul, makes one FT 43-47
1 0 Lumpkin missed three
6 0 McIntosh missed three
0 0 McIntosh draws foul, misses FT
3 0 McIntosh missed floater
0 0 Lindsey missed hook shot
4 0 Brown missed three
2 0 Law missed layup
0 0 McIntosh missed floater
1 0 Brown missed push shot
0 0 McIntosh missed runner (Law rebound)
1 0 Brown missed pull-up (foul on rebound)
Skelly makes two FT 59-45
4 0 McIntosh draws foul, makes two FT 61-47
3 0 Brown missed driving shot
2 0 Taphorn pull-up three GOOD 64-50
2 0 Lindsey missed jumper
1.861111111 0.194444444

The biggest thing that stands out, undeniably, is that the Wildcats didn’t throw a single pass inside the three-point line for the final 11 minutes of the game or so, when the contest turned from an ugly yet competitive affair to an absolute slaughter.

Chris Collins credited the Illini defense as the primary reason for the struggles. And while that tells some of the story, it’s far from the real cause for the 18-point output in the final 20 minutes. His own team — its lack of energy, its lack of shot creators, its lack of basic offense — is what doomed the Wildcats more than anything. It’s easy to defend a team that passes the ball fewer than twice per possession on average and when it does pass, it rarely gets the ball into a position to threaten the basket. McIntosh’s usage rate reached at least 30 four times in the team’s first 22 games before Lindsey got sick. Since, it’s reached that number an additional four times... in just six games.

“Not being able to get anyone else established put a lot on Bryant,” Collins said in the post-game press conference. “I've gotta be better offensively,” he later added.

He’s absolutely right. He has to be better. His players do, too. Their March hopes depend on it.