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Film study: What the hell is goin’ on out there?

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Northwestern is obviously struggling. Here’s some insight into why.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Watching Northwestern attempt to put the ball in the basket has become an eyesore these days.

In the midst of the worst offensive stretch of the Chris Collins era and a ten-game losing streak, the Wildcats have averaged 57.4 points per game on 36.1 percent shooting from the field.

NU has a host of problems, and isolating any one of them as the sole catalyst for the team’s offensive struggles is likely foolish. Calls for Collins’ head are becoming louder and pretty much the entire team outside of Dererk Pardon has come under fire. Open looks seem hard to come by at times, but even when offensive sets do get guys free, the ball is clanking off the rim more often than not.

Vic Law is struggling mightily. Collins has his team positioned at the caboose of the Big Ten in his sixth season after taking over the reigns of the program. Convinced I’d find that Law and Collins are responsible for the ‘Cats seemingly never-ending slide, that dull offensive sets and an abundance of Law misses are the reasons for all the losing, I revisited each game during the ten-loss stretch to confirm my hunch. And while there certainly was a great deal of that (we’ll get to it later), I found that maybe Collins and Law are taking a little too much of the blame for Northwestern’s overall offensive ineptitude.

There are a lot of issues to address, so let’s get started:

Welsh-Ryan...built brick by brick

More often than not, NU’s half-court sets and off-ball screens do, in fact, get guys open. But when you look across the rotation, is there really anyone you want shooting an open three?

Only Miller Kopp shoots above 35 percent from beyond the arc, and everyone outside of Pardon is shooting below 40 percent from the field. Over the last 10 games, how open a player is hasn’t really mattered all that much — the ball just seems determined not to go in.

Against Wisconsin back in January:

Collins pushes his players to get out in transition to get looks exactly like this. As Gaines squares up in the corner for a wide-open three, the whole bench stands up before the ball even leaves his hands.

Here are some more open misses if that’s your type of thing:

Sure, you could watch film of any team and pick out clips of open misses. With NU, they’re just too easy to find. The Wildcats get plenty of open looks in transition, and off-ball screens and offensive sets frequently lead to slightly or uncontested shots, but there isn’t a player that can truly hit them consistently.

Falzon can get hot at times, but his inconsistencies have already been shown above (look at how free he gets off of those screens). Gaines and Turner continue to miss at high rates, with or without a hand in their face. Kopp can make the spot-up jumper, but he’s largely too passive at this point. Once again, Law is struggling. If only there was one player Collins could confidently go to to capitalize on these quality sets....

Oh, I forgot Collins already got him before the season even started:

Clank.

Clank.

Clank.

I don’t mean to rag on Ryan Taylor too hard. It’s just that he was brought to Northwestern to score, and right now that seems to be the area in which he is struggling most. He runs hard, gets open off screens, spots up well and has a quick release with good form. Yet when the ball leaves his finger tips, there doesn’t seem to be a soul in the stadium who believes it’s going to fall through the net.

Taylor is quite the conundrum. Like I said, he’s got nice form, he was a proven scorer before getting to Evanston as a grad-transfer, and there are always rumblings that the guy can’t miss in practice. I believe it, but it obviously doesn’t matter if he can’t be counted on during game time.

His underperformance is extremely inhibiting for the coaching staff. Collins gets Taylor open looks multiple times a game, but all that’s done is create long rebounds and fast-breaks going the other way. He played well against Illinois, but it’s almost certainly too little too late.

As a whole, open misses can’t be pinned on Collins, and they’re overall negative effect on the offense goes beyond the forgone points.

(Over) Feeding the beast

Pardon has largely been exempt from the criticism thus far, and that’s for good reason. He’s by far the most efficient player on the team, shooting a team-high 58 percent from the field despite being the most credible offensive threat.

Without his presence on both sides of the floor — a reality that Northwestern fans will have to grapple with in due time — the team would likely be unwatchable. That being said, he is now paying the price for being the Wildcat’s only truly reliable scorer.

Feeding Pardon in the post is a staple of Northwestern’s offense, and a lot of the time it leads to possessions like this:

With the floor spaced nicely, Pardon is able to go to work down low and put two points on the board with a smooth left hook. Ethan Happ gives respect to Gaines in the corner, allowing Pardon a little more room to work in the paint.

A few possessions later, Pardon and NU weren’t so lucky:

It’s the same look as the clip before, but this time Happ leaves the shooter and brings the double on Pardon twice, forcing two misses. Because of all the open misses shown earlier and Northwestern’s overall lack of shooters, opposing teams can afford to send a lot more double-teams Pardon’s way.

Of course, the Wildcats can’t stop going to Pardon in the post, so there have been your fair share of these types of possessions:

With the team shooting as poorly as it has over the 10-game skid, Pardon’s life has gotten all that more difficult. Unless the ball starts to go in more often than it currently is, there’s no incentive for teams to not send extra help Pardon’s way.

There’s really no one to pin the blame on for this. It’s certainly not Pardon’s fault, and it’s hard to criticize the coaching staff too much. The reality is basketball is hard when you’re not making shots.

It’s Law instead of Pardon facing the double-team in the post in the scenario below, but look what happens when the open man is passed to out of the double:

Opposing teams need to be given a reason to respect open shooters, and misses like that are not the answer.

Some sets just don’t work

Not too much time will be devoted to this as it’s far from the main cause of the low-scoring performances, but there are offensive sets that feature a lot of screens and a lot of running around that just don’t get guys open.

Lots of passes, lots of movement, but not a lot comes out of it. Ball movement and screens are great, but not if they don’t result in any real scoring threats. Plus, the offense takes a long time to initiate.

Down the stretch against Iowa:

Much like missed shots, stagnant offensive possessions are a part of the game. Not every set or play is going to lead to an open look. That’s when most teams turn to their primary scorer to create his own shot at the end of the shot clock.

Unfortunately, no Wildcat has proven to excel in that role.

After long unsuccessful possessions, Taylor and Law are forced to take matters into their own hands, but they can’t get their prayers to fall.

Teams rely on their stars to bail them out at least a few times a game. Right now, Northwestern doesn’t have the luxury to do so. It’s on Collins and the coaching staff to make sure as best they can that offensive sets don’t result in iso-ball at the end of the shot clock.

Re-addressing Vic Law’s struggles

Law was supposed to be the guy bailing the team out when everything else failed, but the burden has proven too much to bear; realistically, Law is best suited to be an off-ball threat on the wing, not a creator who hunts shots from himself and others.

There’s already been a lot of talk about Law’s less-than-stellar play, so we also won’t spend too much time here. However, Law’s uncharacteristic struggles have a lot to do with the team’s offensive ineptitude. Like Pardon, Law has a heavy burden at all areas of the court, so as he’s gone, so has the team.

Law is by no means a bad player — any team in the conference would benefit from having him as a scoring threat — but he’s at or near the top of opposing teams’ scouting reports this season, and things have been ugly.

Open miss:

Force:

Force + open miss:

Turnover:

It hasn’t all been bad for Law. He’s still a threat on offense and has hit clutch shots during the losing streak. But if Northwestern is to overcome its variety of other offensive deficiencies, it can’t have this type of play from one of its stars.

No primary ball-handler

Finally, as everyone knows by now, the Wildcats have been playing without a primary ball-handler, further compounding other troubles.

A.J. Turner, Law and Gaines have all taken turns taking the ball up the court, and it’s clear none of them are quite comfortable in that role.

Without a true point guard, two issues can plague an offense. First, you’re asking a player to fill a role he is less comfortable in at the expense of what he is good at. We’ve seen it with Law; a quality off-ball scorer, Law has seen his performance dip in all areas partly as a result of taking on an additional role in which he does not specialize.

Second, you get turnovers.

Late in the game against Iowa facing a full-court press:

Gaines bringing the ball up the court against Maryland:

These are just two examples, but are nonetheless important. When you already have missed open shots, double-teams interrupting your best source of offense, stale offensive sets and your star player struggling, you can’t be turning the ball over — especially in key situations. This isn’t always an issue; it wasn’t against Wisconsin. But, too often there are moments when late-clock and late-game situations go awry.

A true point guard could have made the difference down the stretch against Iowa. The lack of a primary ball-handler is likely not the entire root of the team’s putrid offense, but it certainly doesn’t help.


So is it Collins, Law or an overall lack of talent across the board? We re-watched ten games, you just read 1800 words, and the best conclusions is that the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Collins’ responsibility isn’t limited to the offensive sets his team runs. It’s his players and recruiting classes on the floor — their poor performance is certainly a reflection upon him to a degree. If players aren’t making shots, it’s on him to find those who do. But there’s not much he can do about personnel right now.

As far as coaching goes, there’s only so much that can be done when there’s a lid on the basket.