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Film room: Breaking down Vic Law’s struggles

It’s no secret that Law has struggled of late, and the team has suffered as a result.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Vic Law began his fifth and final season in Evanston red hot. Law blossomed into the dominant two-way player that he was recruited to be, and it seemed like he had an outside shot of being the first Northwestern player selected in the NBA Draft since 1999. His play has suffered as of late, however, and the team’s overall play has followed suit.

It’s obvious that Law put in the work this past summer to be the man for the Wildcats — he showed an improved 3-point shot and looked more capable of creating for himself in an offense without a point guard. He averaged 17.9 points on 39.5 percent from three and 44.7 percent from the field through the first 14 games of the year. He balanced being the team’s centerpiece on offense while guarding the opposing team’s best wing.

Since a Jan. 13 blowout loss to Michigan, though, Law’s overall play has dropped off a cliff, in part because of knee issues that forced Law to miss that loss to Michigan. Over the next five games, Law averaged 7.6 points on 20 percent from the field. The low point of Law’s season was a 3-for-17 shooting performance in a disappointing home loss to Penn State.

It’s clear that when Law is at his best, the Wildcats are competitive. Competitive meaning playing the then No. 2 and hottest in the country Michigan to the final possession. Competitive meaning a team which looked like it could make some noise in the Big Ten. But when Law is off, the team goes on a seven-game losing streak and plays like the worst in the Big Ten.

So, why has Law been playing poorly?

The obvious answer is that he is likely playing hurt in his final college season. Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune reported that Law missed the Michigan game due to knee tendinitis. Tendinitis is a chronic, painful injury that can be hard to play through. It’s commendable that Law has only missed one game while dealing with an injury that can be debilitating. Law has continued to wear some sort of tape over his left knee, which is a sign that he is not 100 percent healthy.

Another is that he is missing open shots that fans grew accustomed to watching him make in the beginning of the year.

He is still getting the looks he wants, but the ball just refuses to go in for him sometimes. An inability to knock down open shots has plagued the team all year, which is something Chris Collins spoke to following Wednesday’s loss to Rutgers.

“A lot of times it’s a make or miss type deal,” Collins said. “The other night we made those shots and scored 79 at Iowa.”

The Wisconsin game was especially frustrating for Law. Multiple of his attempts were wide open looks in the paint, but the ball would find a way to rattle out. The combination of Law not making shots and Pardon being locked up by a one-two punch of Ethan Happ and Nathan Reuvers made offense hard to come by for Northwestern. The end result was a blowout loss in which the team shot 29.6 percent from the field.

Teams are also allocating more defensive resources to Law. It’s no secret by now that Northwestern’s only consistent offensive weapons are Pardon and Law. Since the other three players on the floor are hardly a threat game in and game out, opposing teams feel comfortable sending double teams or more generally tilting the floor towards Law.

Law loves to post up. His length allows him to do so effectively. This is an area opponents have keyed onto with a lack of shooting on the floor for the Wildcats. On the play above, Rutgers guard Geo Baker completely ignores Gaines, a 27.3 percent three-point shooter, in order to double team Law. The ball stays with Northwestern on this play, but this is a good defensive stand for Rutgers as they are taking away something Law loves to do.

So what do I mean by “tilting the floor?” Well, just watch this play.

Law draws the attention of four Rutgers players when he catches the ball. Ron Harper Jr., who is guarding Ryan Taylor, stays in the paint instead of taking away the potential kick-out to Taylor. Baker comes off A.J. Turner to swipe at the ball. It’s hard for Law to get much going when he is attracting this much attention from defenses. No one else besides Pardon and Law have earned the respect of opposing defenses, and for good reason.

Sure, Law forces the issue time-to-time as he does on this play in the home loss to Rutgers.

But how can you blame him? Dererk Pardon drew double-teams for much of that game from Rutgers twin tower duo of Myles Johnson and Shaquille Doorson. The responsibility fell on Law to get the offense going with Pardon unable to do much. On this specific play, he could have tried to squeeze in a pass to A.J. Turner, who is shooting 37.7 percent from the field. Both Aaron Falzon and Anthony Gaines are open too, but are outside Law’s field of vision. Law will finish this play sometimes, but it’s still a tough look.

Law can still be a valuable asset to the offense even when he’s not playing well.

On this play, Indiana’s Aljami Durham knows Law is a credible threat when driving. As a result, he overcommits to helping stop Law’s drive, which leaves Ryan Taylor wide open. Taylor ends up missing the shot, but the play shows how Law has grown as a playmaker. This play also shows the value in having wings who can drive effectively. Dribble penetration puts pressure on opposing defenses and leads to open looks like this one. Without anyone who can consistently take their defender off the bounce, Law included, Northwestern is left searching for offense through cutting and setting screens. Evidently, that has not worked as of late.

Another reason why Law is so valuable is because he uses his playmaking ability to create offense in late shot clock situations. When he’s not on the floor, Northwestern usually dumps it down to Pardon in these situations. When they’re both off the floor, it gets ugly.

Not once in this possession is anyone on the floor a threat to score. No penetration, side-to-side passes and half-speed cuts make this set hard to watch. Wisconsin’s Brad Davison may or may not have stuck his foot out to trip Turner, but it doesn’t matter. Northwestern didn’t deserve to score on this play anyway.

Now let’s consider a similar situation, but with Law on the floor.

Again, Northwestern struggles to get a good look out of its called set. However, Law is there to save the day at the end of the shot clock. This is not sustainable offense, but Law hit shots like these rather consistently in the beginning of the season when the team was playing well. Now, we’re probably seeing some regression to the mean.

That clip, along with the one from the Indiana game above, demonstrate how important it is to have players who can create for themselves. You can run the best sets in the world, but it’s all for nothing if you don’t have players who can force the defense to rotate. When there’s no penetration, the defense can sit back and passively allow the offense to tire itself out by cutting as much as it wants.

The main problem with Northwestern’s offense is its lack of a point guard. Everyone knows that by now. It’s a big part of why the team blew the Iowa game. It’s much of the reason why Taylor and Turner have underperformed. But the other problem with the offense is that there is only one wing player who can create shots for himself, and that’s Vic Law. Knowing this, other teams are making it difficult for Law to put up the numbers he grew accustomed to earlier in the year against a lower level of competition. Everyone knew Law had a lot of responsibility on his plate coming into the season, but at this point he is shouldering too much of the offensive burden, and his game is suffering as a result.