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Northwestern’s offense couldn’t find a rhythm against Michigan

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An ugly offensive stretch in the first half erased a great start to the game.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The first eight minutes of Monday night’s game against Michigan could not have gone better.

Northwestern was executing the pick and roll, breaking down the defense, and knocking down open shots. With a nine-point lead on the road at the under-12 timeout in the first half, it looked like the start to another special Northwestern performance against Michigan.

But with a chance to make the Wolverines sweat at home, the Wildcats faltered.

“The game got away from us really in the first half,” Chris Collins said after the game. “They were having a real hard time scoring against us and we couldn’t extend that lead. You hold them to 21 we needed to be up double figures at half.”

Over the ensuing 11:50, Northwestern had more turnovers (six) than points (five). Michigan didn’t exactly light it up offensively, but the Wolverines took a two-point advantage into the locker room. For the second time in 15 days, Northwestern was held under 20 points in the first half.

Michigan deserves credit for playing excellent defense—in the postgame presser Collins cited noted how bothersome the length of Michigan’s wings as well as the physicality of Moritz Wagner was for Northwestern. The Wolverines made it a point to pressure the ball and force Northwestern to catch passes deep beyond the three-point line. Regardless, a deeper look at Northwestern’s offense at the end of the first half reveals a lack of dynamism and several brutal errors that let Michigan back into the game.

Bench scoring was a problem for Northwestern on Monday night. Aaron Falzon knocked down two three-pointers to account for the only Wildcat points off the bench and the backups often struggled to get good looks.

With Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey on the bench, Northwestern struggles to penetrate Michigan’s defense and force them to rotate. As the shot clock winds down, Jordan Ash, a competent but unproven three-point shooter, has to chuck up a corner trey.

Collins lamented Northwestern’s carelessness with the ball, saying turnovers cost the Wildcats a couple baskets in the first half. “They scored on run-outs on our live ball turnovers,” he said. “I thought when we set our defense, it was very hard on them in the first half.”

Zavier Simpson is smart to know that Anthony Gaines is not a confident ball-handler and traps the freshman as he tries to attack. The Wolverines get a turnover and a dunk.

You can’t have unforced turnovers like this, either.

All game long, it seemed like Northwestern worked much harder than Michigan to generate shots. The Wolverines had a ton of open looks in the first half against Northwestern’s zone but opened the game 1-for-12 from beyond the arc. Nonetheless, Michigan finished with 13 assists on 21 made field goals while Northwestern had seven assists on 18 made field goals. Only one came in the final eight minutes of the first half.

Northwestern missed some open shots too, but it’s also safe to say the Wildcats settled for isolation opportunities and contested shots in the first half. A Scottie Lindsey missed three at the end of the half points to a larger lack of dynamic playmaking in Northwestern’s offense right now.

Northwestern runs what looks like a simple isolation play for Lindsey, who is ostensibly their best isolation scorer. Usually, an isolation play will call for all the players not involved to get to the corner so their man won’t help, but here Northwestern’s wings stay close enough to Lindsey where Moritz Wagner can deke at Lindsey to make him pick up his dribble and launch a contested three. Northwestern is launching the third-most threes in conference play, but converting them at a 32.3 percent clip, good for tenth in the conference.

More broadly, McIntosh and Lindsey have struggled to demonstrate their playmaking ability recently. Lindsey’s assist rate is down to 9.7 percent in conference play and the senior is averaging only 1.29 assists for each turnover. McIntosh was otherworldly in his 16-assist, zero-turnover performance against Minnesota, but since that game he has put up 19 assists and 12 turnovers in five games, well off his career assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.22:1.

Shooting struggles from teammates and from Lindsey and McIntosh themselves have compounded the playmaking problems for Northwestern. Yet leveraging the athleticism and ability of Northwestern’s wings to attack the basket and force defenses to rotate could help alleviate dry spells like we saw at the end of the first half Monday night.

The Wildcats seem to have turned a corner defensively and bought into the 2-3 zone. Now, the attention needs to turn to the other side of the court. With eight regular season games remaining, postseason aspirations are dim but with three senior starters, Northwestern still has something to play for.

“There’s very, very little margin for error this second half of the conference season and our guys have to play with that sense of urgency,” Collins said. “We have veteran guys that, they want to go down swinging, that want to go down fighting, so that’s what we’ll intend to do these last eight games.”