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Film study: Talking defensive strategy with Billy Donlon

NU’s defensive guru breaks down how the Wildcats treat pick-and-roll, double-teams, and three-point defense.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Northwestern Nuccio DiNuzzo-USA TODAY Sports

The feel-good story from Tuesday night’s 73-66 win over Indiana was Aaron Falzon’s remarkable 21-point performance. But in dispatching the Hoosiers, the Wildcats also put forth an excellent defensive performance, especially in the game’s middle 20 minutes. The Wildcats went on a 15-4 run to close the half, turning a seven-point deficit into a four-point lead. Falzon made three triples, but Northwestern also held Indiana without a basket on 11 of 13 possessions to close the half.

I re-watched the game this week to pick up on some schematic trends I noticed, then ran them by Billy Donlon, NU’s equivalent of a defensive coordinator, on Friday. Here’s what I learned:

No threes for you

Northwestern limited Indiana to just four made three-pointers on Tuesday, continuing a trend of excellent three-point defense. The Hoosiers aren’t a particularly good three-point shooting team, but NU is holding Big Ten opponents to just 26.5 percent from beyond the arc, good for second-best in conference play. In its three Big Ten wins, NU’s opponents shot 8-of-49 (16.3 percent) from deep.

“We’ve really made an emphasis to try to defend the three and we have really good perimeter guys to do it,” Donlon said. “With Dererk [Pardon] and Barret [Benson] inside, they’ve done a great job in their ball screen coverage because if you don’t defend the ball screen well, that’s where a lot of people get you from three.”

Donlon told Inside NU that the game plan against the Hoosiers was to let Justin Smith, who was 3-of-8 from deep before Tuesday’s game, fire away from range. NU’s game plan manifests in this coverage of a pick-and-roll play late in the first half.

Indiana spreads the floor around a Romeo Langford-Juwan Morgan pick-and-roll.

The Wildcats have been deploying Dererk Pardon as a hedge man all year, and here, the big man forces Langford to pick up his dribble. Meanwhile, notice how Aaron Falzon sags into the paint to “tag” Morgan on the roll, almost daring Langford to toss a cross-court pass to Smith for an open three. IU knows that’s not a good shot (Smith went 0-of-3 from deep) and the Hoosiers have to reset.

Against Wisconsin, who shoots nearly 40 percent from three, defending all five players in a spread pick-and-roll will be more difficult.

“It gets a little bit trickier when you spread that screen-and-roll with a great ball-handling player and a great rim runner and three great shooters,” Donlon said. “How you tag, how you play the roll, that gets a little dicey.”

Doubling and scrambling

Juwan Morgan is probably the most important player to game plan for when facing the Hoosiers. Donlon told Inside NU that the Wildcats wanted to double in certain scenarios when Morgan was in the post. In this clip, A.J. Turner comes down to double as Morgan takes a dribble in the post.

Turner forces Morgan to pick up his dribble, but the IU big man quickly kicks the ball out to Rob Phinisee.

“The only thing here that we’re a little slow out of the trap,” Donlon said. “You don’t want to give that up but yeah, the rotation is not bad except for we ball-stare. When you’re in rotation you can’t stare at the ball. That’s something that we’re practicing, that’s not just about A.J.”

IU has a three-on-two on the ball side of the court. Donlon describes the art of the scramble:

“At the end of the day, what you’re trying to tell the guys is we don’t want to give up a shot on the first two passes,” Donlon said.

Still, the Wildcats have to think about the game plan, especially if a guy like Justin Smith, whom NU wants to hoist threes, is on the floor.

“If [Rob] Phinisee was Justin Smith, [Ryan] Greer wouldn’t gone, he would have shown and gone back, and if Justin had shot it, he would have shot it,” Donlon added.

Falzon’s big night

Aaron Falzon’s huge offensive game boosted the Wildcats, along with some key defensive contributions. His energy resulted in two blocks, a steal, and a charge drawn.

Falzon was active the minute he came off the bench. In this clip, just after his made his first three-pointer, watch how he defends smaller Indiana players. Aaron Falzon is out here bothering people.

Donlon was more than pleased with Falzon’s effort on that end of the floor.

“I told him the two years I’ve been here, I thought that was the best he’s ever played defensively,” Donlon said.”He was great, he was active, he was mobile,he was a play ahead and we put him on all different kinds of guys.”

Throughout his Northwestern career, injuries have hampered Falzon’s strength and quickness, which have undermined his defensive abilities. But on Tuesday, the redshirt junior looked like a new player.

“It just shows to what can happen to a player when the ball’s going in ...” Donlon said. “And that’ll be the good thing for us, is you can always play this way defensively, whether your ball is going in or not.”