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Film Room: NU’s defensive woes against Merrimack

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Backdoor cuts spelled disaster for the ‘Cats.

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

The one thing Chris Collins and co. could hang their hats on through the struggles of the past two years was stout defense. Northwestern finished 30th in points per game allowed in 2018-19 and 38th the year before that. This year, though, with assistant and defensive guru Billy Donlon leaving to coach UMKC, questions about that side of the ball came up again.

Then Friday night happened. The ‘Cats were picked apart by a roster of Division 2 athletes, surrendering 71 points to the Warriors, four points greater than the average they gave up to Big Ten opponents alone last year.

So what went wrong?

Largely, the culprit was poor discipline. Guys were turning their heads the wrong way, reacting late on cuts and at times looked like they were just going through the motions. These kinds of mistakes are subtle, and it’s hard for a coach to point them out and adjust them in game speed. But at the same time, if miscues like these are consistently bleeding over from practice into game action, it becomes more than a minor execution problem.

Let’s get into the film!

I don’t care that he missed—if you give up a wide open corner three to a college guard off of a single pass, that’s bad defense. Pat Spencer is out of position in the above clip almost as soon as the play starts.

Yes, helping defensively is a good thing but not when a) the ballhandler comes to your side and your man is now one pass away, b) Pete Nance has already moved over to cover the potential roller that Spencer is worried about and c) Spencer has no idea where his man is. Now if it was a few steps back and at the block, where he could see man and ball and have an easier path to close out on the shooter, then this would have been more acceptable.

It doesn’t get much better from there.

More heads turning the wrong way on this one, the culprits being Kopp and Nance. Just like Spencer, Kopp isn’t seeing ball and man, though the fake down screen being set puts him in a tough position. Still, the backdoor cut catches him by surprise, for which a lack of attentiveness/readiness is partially to blame, though the bigger issue seems to be not knowing the opponent’s tendencies early in the game, which is somewhat excusable.

From there, Nance does a 180 to see what’s happened, severely compounding the initial slip up. The forward can’t find human flamethrower Devin Jensen until it’s too late.

The Wildcats continued to find ways to get as many players as possible involved in relative defensive ineptitude.

Here, A.J. Turner compounds getting fooled by the opposing team’s leading scorer faking a ball screen by haphazardly pursuing around the screen on the elbow, falling behind on a clever cut. Jared Jones is hugging his man too tight and should be back a step or two in case Jensen makes that very move, and Robbie Beran focuses a bit too much on his man in the weak side corner, only noticing that he should have rotated by the time Jensen catches the ball.

Turner made things worse in a hurry with arguably the worst defensive play of the night, inexplicably falling for what wasn’t even really a fake and allowing his man perhaps the easiest back cut of his life.

I don’t think I need to explain how bad that was. Fish have been harder to bait than Turner was there. And again, the help from Buie could have been a bit quicker, though that was far from the most important problem.

If you’re looking for reasons outside of “the players screwed up a lot” as to why the defense struggled so much, this next play gives a good explanation.

Another backdoor cut for a layup, and again, it came off a simple pass and screen away action by Merrimack. Notice the flaws in how Pat Spencer and Miller Kopp are defending this.

Spencer is not trying fight around the outside of the screen, meaning that he’s been instructed to go underneath if his man comes over the top of it. Therefore, the screener’s man (Kopp) is supposed to show and step out to the guard when he comes off. It’s not a full switch, and the goal is that once Kopp has prevented the guard from getting a clean look from three, he can scramble back to his man as Spencer returns.

Merrimack quickly diagnosed this and simply had the guard backdoor, since both defenders are moving forward. They also could have slipped the screener to the basket for an open layup.

Kopp and Spencer’s problems in the screen game continued in the second half.

Chicago Bulls fans might recognize that Spencer tried to cover that pick and roll by icing it, i.e. positioning yourself so the ball handler can’t come off the intended direction of the screen. The problem, of course, is that Kopp is not playing ice defense, as that would put him behind Spencer and near the post rather than up by his screener.

Spencer was most likely in the wrong here, as I didn’t see any other plays where NU used ice defense. Either that, or I’m giving him too much credit, and he was overeager enough to get completely faked out despite readying for Northwestern’s typical pick and roll coverage.

No matter whose fault it was, this was another miscommunication/defensive miscue, allowing Jensen to tee up one of his seven made triples on the night.

The last five minutes of the game were an unmitigated disaster for the ‘Cats, but from what I saw the lack of offensive production was more to blame than anything else. That said, two defensive failures caught my eye right before that stretch.

Kopp is way too trigger happy here, falling for every jab step #23 throws. He gets off balance quickly and puts up almost no resistance on the drive to the hoop. His mistake is also compounded by a lack of effort in rotations by his teammates. Gaines should have slid over to try and stop the drive, followed by Buie dropping down to the shooting corner, Spencer rotating to Buie’s man and a continuation of scrambling that would have hopefully stalled the offense.

Same old story. Spencer isn’t attentive enough, gambles for a steal he had no chance at, and is too out of position to close out correctly, allowing his man to drive by him like he was a turnstile.


If you want to look on the bright side, most of the defensive issues were individual mistakes, rather than failures of the larger Northwestern defensive philosophy. And there is plenty of time, especially for players like Spencer who are new to D1 basketball, to turn things around.

Unfortunately, it’s also fair to think that the ‘Cats could make these mistakes all year, especially the relative veterans on the team, and Merrimack was one of the few opponents that made you think they could get away with some mistakes.

It’s early in the season, and no team this young is anywhere close to a finished product, especially on the defensive side of the ball. That said, Chris Collins’ squad failed as a defensive unit against Merrimack, and they need to shape up their positioning on that end if they want any chance against more talented opponents going forward.