In Thursday’s preseason exhibition, Chris Collins broke out an exciting, transition and three-heavy offense that allowed the Wildcats to roll to a 105-64 victory against the overmatched Hawks. Northwestern had some struggles defensively and when it came to their ability to stay out of foul trouble, but all in all, despite the questionable quality of their opponent, the game was a success.
Here’s the full box score, for those of you who want to see the story told by the numbers. (Look at those shooting percentages!) Now, without further ado, let’s get to our most pressing thoughts on the action:
Boo Buie has the ultimate green light
The highly touted first year has no conscience, and it’s undeniably awesome. Buie finished 7-12 from the field, 4-8 from three and totaled 18 points on the night. His shot selection was certainly not conservative, as he fired up off-the-dribble threes and maneuvered his way into the paint for audacious floaters.
I'm just gonna say it: Boo Buie is the most purely fun Northwestern offensive player since Tre Demps— Inside NU (@insidenu) November 1, 2019
When asked about the green light that Collins confirmed he has officially been given, Buie responded, “I have an aggressive mindset but that’s both me trying to find my open teammates or, if I have the open shot, I will shoot it. I hope all my teammates would shoot the open shot too.”
Northwestern’s Pick-and-Roll defense looked a bit peculiar
Conventional wisdom in modern basketball suggests that you should defend the pick-and-roll in one of two ways if you’re playing man-to-man defense: 1) Switch all P&R’s to keep your defense out of two-on-one and three-on-two situations, or 2) have the screener’s defender sink back to the top of the paint, hoping to entice the ball handler into a contested mid-range jumper. Northwestern did not do either of those things against Quincy.
I’m even hesitant to say they were hedging those actions, i.e. a more traditional strategy that can cause problems with covering the roll man. Rather, the Wildcats defended with this weird amalgamation of switching and hedging. The defender whose man set the screen, usually Pete Nance or Ryan Young, would jump onto the guard like he had fully taken him as his man assignment, only to sprint completely away from the ball and back to his man after a few seconds of an NU guard meandering their way over.
When I asked Coach Collins about this post-game, he responded, “We’ve got to clean that up. Part of that is their big guys were really good shooters, so our big guys were at times a little too conscious of getting back to them picking-and-popping ... Instead of staying in front of the ball, they got into the paint and were able to get to our basket and gave us some problems. It’s going to be great film.”
It wasn’t something that cost Northwestern much at all against an inferior opponent, but this intriguing, seemingly minor situation was a reminder of just how much work this young team has to do to get in sync on both sides of the ball.
Northwestern is going to play at a faster pace this year
The Wildcats moved at a snail’s pace on offense last year, finishing 275th in possessions per game, 247th in shot attempts and a ghastly 318th in points per game. While it’s only a scrimmage, Northwestern finished with 69 field goal attempts tonight compared to 57 per game last year, and postgame Collins largely confirmed that narrative, telling us, “We want to keep the defense on their heels if we can and we’re trying to work on that. It’s something we’ve been committed to in the preseason is getting the ball up the floor with pace and trying to flow into our offense a little bit quicker.”
Pat Spencer, who ended up with a monster line offensively thanks to a variety of easy dunks, led plenty of breaks with reckless abandon. He and Buie specifically are a dynamic duo up top when it comes to getting up and down the floor, though players like AJ Turner, Anthony Gaines, and even Jared Jones were more than happy to get in on the action.
Fouls might be a problem
15 in the first half. 29 for the game. Against a division-two team. Most of which were either reckless charges or the consequence of that bad pick-and-roll defense forcing Northwestern’s big men to foul as they challenged shots at rim.
Sometimes a lot of fouls aren’t the worst thing in the world. They can often indicate that the team is trying to recover and hustle after opposing fast breaks. The fouls tonight, however, were often due to lack of awareness and discipline. As an example, Miller Kopp made a fantastic steal near the end of the first half, but missed the layup off of it, and Robbie Beran committed a wild foul trying to jump over the Quincy player for a tip-in. He was called for a foul with only a few seconds left in the half, and Collins immediately shouted, “Robbie!!!”
The head coach didn’t seem too concerned about the issue postgame, charting up most of the mistakes and lapses to youth and inexperience. “There’s going to be mistakes. I want us to play really hard and aggressive, and I can live with the mistakes if they’re coming from us trying to be aggressive.”
The starting lineup is going to change
Coach Collins’ subbing pattern in the first half almost mimicked that of a youth league where they demand that every player gets the same amount of minutes, rotating two five-man lineups in four minute intervals. “I really feel like we have a lot of guys that can help. To me, I don’t have a starting unit, I don’t have guys coming off the bench, we just have ten good players. They may change, they may not, I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes,” he told us postgame.
The starting roles of Anthony Gaines, Miller Kopp and Pete Nance seem pretty secure for now, which leaves point guard Ryan Greer and center Ryan Young. Young had a decent night, scoring 12 points and going 6-7 from the foul line, but he looked slow and uncoordinated at times, while true freshman center Jared Jones showed flashes of dynamic athleticism and pick-and-pop potential, nailing both a three and a long two.
It’s Greer who really needs to be worried, as Boo Buie’s 18 points were 18 more than the true sophomore put up. Spencer certainly could also be an option. The former lacrosse star plays with reckless abandon, sometimes finishing with incredible power around the rim, and sometimes bowling over defenders for easy charge calls.
He injects the team with an energy and swagger they just don’t get with Greer, and his team-high 19 points on a blistering 8-9 shooting performance is certainly something to keep an eye on going forward. Meanwhile, AJ Turner quietly put up 12 points and five assists, and seemed happy in the postgame interview to accept a meaningful role off the bench.
Overall, though a couple of players struggled, the scrimmage held up to Collins’ constant offseason discussion of the relative depth of this team. Regardless of who secures the starting spots, there will be players off the bench who can contribute to a Power-5 team. The more glaring issue, of course, continues to be a lack of top-end Big Ten players, and while a solution to that isn’t readily apparent, there is hope on the horizon.