Northwestern men’s basketball has never been known for dynamic offense during Chris Collins’ tenure, to say the least.
The team’s highest national finish in points per game was 204th in 2015-16. The 2016-17 NCAA Tournament team only finished 233rd. And those don’t even compare to Collins’ debut in 2013-14, as Northwestern had the 349th scoring average out of 351 Division One basketball teams.
Oddly, their current points per game rank of 298th is an improvement over last year’s finish, even though their average has dipped from 65.9 to 65.2 ppg. Of course, a big part of that slight dip is what transpired on Sunday afternoon, as Northwestern only mustered 44 points in a 14-point loss to the Purdue Boilermakers, dropping their scoring average by three.
A lot of that had to do with how good Purdue is. They’re sixth in defensive Kenpom and the same rank in scoring defense, nationally for both. However, they are far from a perfect team, already losing three games this season and surrendering 70 points to a Texas squad that barely ranks ahead of Northwestern in points per game. So what did the ‘Cats do so wrong and how can they fix it going forward?
Let’s take a look:
Interestingly enough, the first play of the game for the ‘Cats was an absolute beauty. Two staggered cross screens are set for Miller Kopp, whose shooting acumen forces the defense to bend toward him.
Pat Spencer and Pete Nance immediately get into a pick-and-pop as Anthony Gaines jogs across the baseline and Ryan Young dives to the hoop, forcing Purdue’s Trevion Williams to drop down and prevent and open layup. The five players all moving simultaneously results in a wide open three for arguably Northwestern’s best player.
They went to this play again amidst the near 10-minute field goal drought, this time flipped to the other side and with Boo Buie handling the ball in place of Spencer.
This definitely didn’t run as smoothly as it did previously. Kopp takes a weird path across the court (partially due to some poor screens), and the end result is another missed basket. However, that simultaneous movement of all five players again revealed a crack in the defense that Buie found. He just happened to clank a shot that he probably makes nine out of 10 times (not to mention the officials might have missed a foul here).
If we’ve established that Northwestern’s offense looks at its best when everyone on the court is moving, then it makes sense that a lot of the trouble came when guys stood in one place and set plays stagnated.
First: we don’t get to see how, but as the camera cuts back to the game action Spencer is just crossing half-court as eight seconds have drained off the shot clock. This is admittedly a nitpick, but the best offenses don’t waste the little time they have in each possession meandering up the court. Spencer has to pick up the pace.
Second: the initial movement is good but dies down after Spencer’s pass gets batted into Nance’s hands. The two then try a pick-and-roll that Purdue easily switches while the other players on the court shuffle their feet a little bit. Young being planted in the post makes it easy for the 7’3” Matt Haarms to deter any possible opening at the hoop, leaving Spencer to drive into traffic and lose the ball.
Buckle up, because this next one is a doozy of a possession.
Pat Spencer was completely rattled by the pressure Nojel Eastern put on him, and this again forces the ‘Cats to get to work with about ten fewer seconds than they’d prefer. I know we all love Spencer, but after the last two performances, I’m starting to believe that come January, he will be reserved to a bench role in place of Buie, who seems to have superior ball-handling capability.
The lack of movement killed them again in this play. After Spencer and Young hilariously fail at running a pick-and-pop, only 12 seconds remain on the shot clock, and the three surrounding players have barely moved in inch.
Kopp and Spencer circle around for a few seconds before the latter sees that nothing is happening and goes for his patented mid-range floater, only to be called for the offensive foul on a small but noticeable push-off.
The lack of movement on this possession was just laughable. A.J. Turner walks up and down the left side of the wing for 20 seconds, and Robbie Beran seemed to be frozen in the short corner and unaware of what he could do to help.
Let’s move on!
That play seem familiar? It’s a subset of the same action as the game’s opening play: Spencer and Nance run that same pick-and-pop as Young dives (kind of) to the opposite block.
But this is where movement becomes crucial. In this iteration of the look, Kopp stands in the right corner instead of receiving two cross screens, and Gaines stands in the left corner rather than moving along the baseline.
The Boilermakers are a very good defensive team, and if you run repeated basic action without the wrinkles that tripped them up the first time, it won’t be difficult for them to stop it. And that’s exactly what they did.
There were also problems that extended beyond the offensive system or Collins’ coaching. Some of these guys just have to make better decisions.
I’m not an expert, but I’d wager that Kopp should avoid taking a floater while enclosed by four defenders in favor of finding a guy who just made two consecutive threes standing wide open in the corner!
I don’t want to be mean, but c’mon, this is like one of those Kobe memes on Instagram:
This next play by Turner wasn’t much better.
Because when you can pass up a chance to find a shooter wide open in the corner and instead try your luck with a 15-foot floater over a 7’3” behemoth, you gotta do it.
Honestly, it might help a lot if Collins bans floaters for all players not named Buie or Spencer. But generally, these sorts of mistakes are just going to happen with an inexperienced team that has had such little time to really play together. The issues, as of right now, are bigger than that.
Overall, the ‘Cats under Collins have never had a high-powered offense, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
But just minimal improvement would go along the way. Per usual, the team has a strong defense, only giving up 63.1 points per game, good for 65th in the country.
The ‘Cats will have had an entire week to evaluate and change things up before they take the court against SIU-Edwardsville on Sunday. Hopefully, we’ll see a big focus on keeping all players in motion, some improved decision-making, and general smoothness on the offensive end, even if it does come against a very bad opponent.