The men’s basketball team continued to build on its strong showing over Thanksgiving to beat Georgia Tech 67-61. The ‘Cats played a balanced game on offense and suffocated Georgia Tech on defense, much like they did against Utah. They let their guard down a little in the second half and allowed the Yellow Jackets to come back and make it relatively close. Here are three takeaways from Wednesday night’s game.
The offense is coming along
Everyone knew coming into the season that the biggest question surrounding this team was its lack of a true point guard. With the exception of the Fresno State game, that hasn’t seemed to matter. Vic Law was the primary ball handler against Georgia Tech, and he handled the responsibility well. He’s been exceptional so far this year, and Wednesday was no different. Law has been solid as a distributor and more assertive offensively thus far this season.
The offense is at its best in the half court when the team is able to free up shooters through off ball screens and cuts. The Wildcats get themselves into trouble when they digress from this strategy and go to a more isolation style. A.J. Turner got his pocket picked early in the game when standing near half court, Anthony Gaines turned the ball over after catching it on the wing and dribbling in place for about three seconds and there were plenty of sloppy turnovers in the second half, many of which were on forced drives into the lane. The offense excels when the team limits dribbling and passes fluidly. It’s not so good when it does the opposite.
From a Northwestern perspective, the best part about the team’s offensive success is that it is not yet operating at full capacity. Dererk Pardon and Vic Law have been tremendous so far, but Ryan Taylor and A.J. Turner are both figuring things out in new roles. Taylor has been streaky all year and Turner has been in a severe shooting slump. This team has a chance to be really good if Turner and Taylor become more consistent.
Sloppy play is what allowed the Yellow Jackets to make the game interesting in the second half. The Wildcats turned it over seven times after the break. The Yellow Jackets bailed them out, though, scoring just eight points off turnovers in the second half. Coach Chris Collins thought playing four games in seven days caught up to the team.
As for the turnovers and stagnant second half offense, Collins attributed it to heavy legs after playing three games in four days at the Wooden Legacy and then playing Georgia Tech on a quick turnaround.
“We were really tired,” Chris Collins said. “We play really hard, I mean you guys see that. The way we have to play offense, we need to cut hard, so that gets you tired too. With the fourth game in seven days and cross-country travel, I thought we got really winded.”
The defense looked like it was supposed to
This team is athletic at every position. Almost every player, with Dererk Pardon being the main exception, can lock up on the perimeter, and that showed. NU held Georgia Tech to 20 points in the first half and just 37.7 percent shooting from the field for the game. The team forced 14 turnovers, and scored 17 points off those turnovers. Those stats don’t jump off the page, but the Cats’ defense was bothersome all night.
“Our length and our athleticism allows us to be pretty active defensively,” Collins said. “When you throw lineups out there that have Vic Law, A.J. Turner, [Anthony] Gaines, and [Pete] Nance, those are big guys. We don’t really play any small guys. When we’re in our spots, we can be very difficult to score against.”
It’s hard to mention the team’s defense without talking about its anchor, Dererk Pardon. Pardon’s ability to protect the rim at a high level allows the rest of the team to be more aggressive on the perimeter. On Wednesday, he — and Barret Benson for stretches — held the Yellow Jacket bigs in check.
“Pardon is the key to their team,” Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner said. “He is the head of the snake in a sense, I really believe that. I think he’s really good.”
Ryan Taylor might be the key
Ryan Taylor showed off his pure stroke tonight, leading the team in scoring with 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting from the field. As previously mentioned, he’s been streaky thus far, so Wednesday was encouraging. His ability to create his own shot is clear, and could become a bigger part of the offense at the end of the shot clock. His back-to-back threes in the second half helped push Northwestern’s lead to 28, which proved critical.
“Ryan today played very well,” Law said. “Down the stretch he kind of carried us when we were looking for some offense.”
Taylor won’t be able to single-handedly lift the offense up, but his aggressiveness will be a key determinant of the Wildcats’ success as Big Ten play begins.