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How Northwestern’s switching defense controlled Michigan’s potent offense

The Wildcats employed a strategy they haven’t used all season to contain Michigan

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

Northwestern’s 67-65 victory over Michigan on Wednesday night will undoubtedly be remembered for “The Pass.” And rightfully so. It was a play that elicited so many emotions for so many people. I’ll let Zach Pereles, Ian McCafferty, Josh Burton, Henry Bushnell, Stewart Mandel and others tell those stories.

For I, a man with a cold heart and an odd taste in basketball things, will focus not on the final 1.7 seconds, but on the preceding 39 minutes and 58.3 seconds.

Ahead of Northwestern’s game against Michigan, the central question facing the Wildcats was if, and how, they could slow down the Wolverines’ offense. A top-10 offense nationally, according to KenPom, John Beilein’s team was on fire having won five of six games.

Michigan’s two catalysts during that stretch: point guard Derrick Walton Jr. and forward Moritz Wagner. Both players averaged 16 points per game during that stretch with Walton shooting just over 44 percent and Wagner shooting an impressive 54 percent from the field and 44 percent on threes. Walton’s ability to see the floor and probe the lane, combined with 6-foot-11 Wagner’s versatility as both a shooter and on the interior had carried Michigan.

Plus, Michigan’s offense as a whole was clicking. Their motion, back-screening, side-to-side offense was nearly unstoppable, especially with capable shooters all over the floor.

So Chris Collins and his coaching staff had to make a choice.

“You have to pick your poison a little bit,” Collins said Friday afternoon. “That’s what happens with the really good teams. We had to do that against Michigan. We had to make some tough decisions defensively. What are we going to take away and what are we going to be okay living with?”

Collins’s conclusion: Northwestern would take away the potency of Michigan’s offensive sets by switching nearly every ball screen (and many off-ball screens) to force Michigan to beat Northwestern one-on-one.

Basically, Northwestern’s goal was to avoid this:

And this:

And this:

(Above videos found on

... as much as possible through switches. As long as Michigan’s offense became stationary, Northwestern’s defense had accomplished its goal, even if that meant Walton burning Dererk Pardon or Barret Benson.

Let’s look at that first play again.

This really is a beautiful set to open a game with. The play starts with a few exchanges and an overload on the left wing. Then, Zack Irvin clears his man out just as Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman sets a back screen on Wagner’s man, Caleb Swanigan. Wagner gives the ball up to Walton and then rubs off Abdur-Rahkman. The weak-side help is too tied to DJ Wilson and Purdue gets caught exposed.

I couldn’t determine if Michigan used this same exact set against Northwestern, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have gone as well. First, switching allows bodies to stay connected. Even if there’s a mismatch, someone would pick up Wagner. The second reason is because of how Northwestern chose to play help defense.

Michigan puts Northwestern though a gauntlet on the left side of the floor. Mark Donnal sets one screen on Bryant McIntosh while Wilson is just a few feet away ready to set a second. Sanjay Lumpkin does a great job of immediately stepping out on Irvin, to corral the ball-handler, while McIntosh picks up Wilson. But Benson gets caught and Donnal is able to leak behind the defense. He’s open for a second. And, against Purdue, it probably would have been an easy dunk. But, throughout the game, Northwestern pretty much prioritized helping into the lane over protecting against the weak-side corner three. Nathan Taphorn reads the play, leaves Abdur-Rahkman in the corner, and steals Irvin’s pass to Donnal.

This type of help also showed up when McIntosh would get switched on to Wagner.

It’s clear Michigan tries really hard to keep McIntosh on Wagner. It’s a matchup that should work in the Wolverines’ favor. So, the Wolverines abandon their set to set up a clear-out post-up for Wagner on McIntosh. McIntosh tries to get on Wagner’s high side (which he did most of the game when switched on to Wagner) and front him in the post.

But when Wagner catches the ball, look where Pardon is. He’s matched up with Abdur-Rahkman, who sets up in the corner, but has two feet in the lane, ready to help. Michigan’s spacing gets thrown off with Wilson occupying no man’s land and Pardon and McIntosh combine to force an errant pass.

Throughout the game, Michigan couldn’t consistently take advantage of the small-guarding-big mismatches in the post because of Northwestern’s help defense. So, the other way Michigan attempted to attack the switches is through ball screens.

Ran mostly with Walton/Abdur-Rahkman and Wagner/Donnal, the ball screens forced Pardon/Benson to corral Michigan’s ball-handlers on the perimeter. That’s not something Northwestern’s bigs really ever have to do.

There are a number of ways to defend a pick-and-roll. Some teams switch (like Northwestern did against Michigan). Some teams have the bigs hedge to force the ball-handler to step out of his normal path to allow time for the defender to recover. Some teams “ice” the ball screen, meaning that the on-ball defender forces the ball-handler away from the screen, while the big drops back (this is more common in the NBA).

What Northwestern usually does, according to assistant coach Brian James (now of play-drawing fame), is to ask their bigs to “contain.” That means, the guard has to fight through the screen, while the big man contains the ball-handler until the guard can recover. The big then has to quickly re-locate his man and recover. So Pardon and Benson (and Northwestern’s guards) were asked to do something they really hadn’t done all year.

The most immediate action switching takes away is Wagner’s pick-and-pops.

It’s pretty simple. McIntosh sticks to Wagner after he’s screened to eliminate a quick pass for an open three. That same thinking also applies to defending against rolling big men.

As a counter, Michigan’s guards would try to take Pardon and Benson off the dribble. For the freshman Benson, it was a lot to ask. Usually, he picked up a quick foul, which, in the scheme of things isn’t a bad play at all. Pardon did too some of that too, but he also had some really bright moments of individual defense.

Here he is playing Abdur-Rahkman one-on-one:

And here he forces Walton to give the ball up late in the shot clock:

In the second half especially, Michigan made some adjustments. Aside from attacking mismatches (which proved difficult), offenses can use misdirection to confuse switching defenses. Bigs can “slip,” meaning that they might appear to set a screen, only to dive to the basket before making contact.

Wagner doesn’t actually make contact with McIntosh, but instead slips to the bucket. Because Pardon thinks Wagner will set the screen, Pardon is ready to switch onto McIntosh’s man, and because McIntosh doesn’t make contact with Wagner, he doesn’t think there will be a switch. With the sharpshooting Duncan Robinson in the opposite corner, Lumpkin can’t stray too far away, so he’s unable to help. The result: an easy layup. Michigan was successful with that action a few times in the second half.

But, overall, the Wildcats’ defense withstood Michigan. The culmination of what Northwestern did defensively came on a single play with just under seven-and-a-half minutes left in the first half.

This very well could be the single best defensive possession Northwestern has played all season. The defense against the initial action is strong to start. As makes his cut off of Donnal with about 22 seconds left on the shot clock, both Benson and Gavin Skelly (who’s on the opposite side) step into the lane to show help as Law recovers. Then, because Robinson is not a dangerous driver and Donnal is not going to pop for a three, Benson and Scottie Lindsey decide not to switch.

As the shot clock approaches 10 seconds, the real individual fun begins. A Wilson ball screen for Walton forces Skelly to switch. Skelly stops Walton’s drive and forces him to kick the ball out to Wilson. Wilson’s drive forces Skelly and Law to switch again (the second time in under 10 seconds) before Wilson kicks the ball back to Walton in the corner. Walton’s first step leaves the switching Law in his tracks and it looks like he’ll have a layup to beat the shot clock. But, just as Northwestern had done all game, Benson right on the help line and easily steps over to swat Walton’s attempt, mean mug and all.

While Northwestern’s switching man-to-man was pretty solid against Michigan, it’s probably not something Collins will go to all that much. Against Purdue, for example, big men Caleb Swanigan (6-foot-9, 250 pounds) and Isaac Haas (7-foot-2, 290 pounds) are much more punishing than Michigan’s bigs in the post. It seems that those two would be better at taking advantage of mismatches than Wagner or Donnal.

Regardless, it’s a nice tool for Northwestern to pull out, especially if they have to play a relatively unknown team or two with a short turnaround in the postseason.