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Film Room: Dissecting how the ‘Cats blew their lead in Bloomington

Northwestern’s offense disappeared down the stretch. Let’s break down how it happened.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

You all know the story by now. Northwestern’s men’s basketball team in the post-tournament appearance years has created a tradition of blowing close games.

And somehow, Wednesday night’s loss to Indiana might have been the most painful of them all.

For the entire mid-portion of the game, the ‘Cats were dominating the Hoosiers in Assembly Hall, outscoring the favorites 31-11 from the 7:05 mark of the first half to the 9:52 mark of the second half, giving themselves a 50-40 lead and a chance for their biggest win of the season.

The clip below summarizes how Northwestern went about protecting that double-digit lead in the final minutes.

NU was outscored 26-12, and left Bloomington with a 66-62 defeat, extending their losing streak to five. Not to mention, it was the third loss in this recent streak where the ‘Cats were leading with only a couple of minutes remaining.

There were a lot of reasons why this happened. Some may point to the injuries sustained by Anthony Gaines and Boo Buie. Some might point out admittedly questionable officiating, as the Hoosiers were awarded 30 free throws compared to Northwestern’s 10, and every Wildcat front court player dealt with foul trouble. In addition, giving up 26 points in just under 10 minutes points to a somewhat poor stretch of defense.

But quite honestly, the defense did a really good job for most of the game. Even with that porous period, they still managed to hold the 42nd best adjusted offense per KenPom to 11 points under its scoring average, and ten fewer points per 100 possessions.

No, the true culprit of the collapse was the Northwestern offense, which was stagnant at best and completely defunct at worst in the most important period of the game.

Let’s see what went wrong.

Problems in the Pick and Roll

The ‘Cats allowed Pat Spencer to run the show for pretty much the entire game, constantly giving him ball screens, which for 34 of the game worked quite well: he racked up 15 points and five assists in that span. Unfortunately, this play below was a premonition of things to come.

Robbie Beran is standing wide open under the bucket and Ryan Young does a good job recognizing the opening, but he telegraphs the overhead bullet pass so poorly that Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis is airborne before the ball even leaves Young’s hands. The broadcast even caught Collins communicate in frustration that the freshman center should have ball faked before throwing the pass.

But that didn’t stop Young from making the same mistake at a crucial apex of the action.

(If you look closely at the sideline you can see that Collins is practically strangling the air in frustration).

Spencer did a very good job at recognizing openings in the defense and realizing when to attack them with either drives or his own high speed passes, but the lack of this ability by the players that screened for him (and not just Young) hurt the offense consistently.

I know these next two plays weren’t a part of the 12 minute downfall, but they’re emblematic of the bigger problem at hand.

It might look like Spencer was at fault in that first play, but I think it’s more on Beran, who fails to realize just how open the slip is, as Spencer patiently waits for his counterpart to recognize it, but to no avail. On the second clip, it’s quite obvious that Jared Jones blows a quality opportunity in space by not even turning to see the ball.

Essentially, the problem that developed was this: Indiana almost always doubled Spencer out of the ball screen, and when Spencer passed his screener the ball, that player was often ineffective and made poor decisions, causing Spencer to lose trust in his big men. Spencer then stopped passing despite being double teamed, causing him to make poor decisions and turn the ball over. It went about as poorly as the description would indicate.

Spencer doesn’t want to give Young the ball even though he’s wide open, and only attempts an awkward pass once the defense has had time to rotate.

Spencer has lost so much trust in Young that he blatantly ignores the open big man twice on the same possession, which fizzles out yet again.

And finally, this all lead to the climax of the second half collapse, the play where the ‘Cats ultimately lost the game.

Spencer does not hit the open Beran, and doesn’t so much as glance at Young, fully determine to get a switch and charge to the rim. The only problem is that the Hoosiers anticipated a stubborn Spencer drive to the rim, as Justin Smith reaches in without fear that the ball would be kicked out, which leads to his and-one on the other end to tie the game. What Miller Kopp was thinking on his soft-but-obvious foul, I have no idea.

Bad Decisions and Poor Precision

It wasn’t just failure to execute the singular action of the pick-and-roll that doomed the offense. None of these plays probably fit under a single category, they’re all just plays where you shake you head and say, “That was bad,” as soon as you see it.

Indiana had rattled off five straight points at that moment, getting the home crowd back into it, and the ‘Cats desperately needed to generate a good shot to help regain momentum. Instead, Kopp panicked and forced up a contested, low efficiency fade away, even though ten seconds is more than enough time to set up some type of action.

Beran committed one of two possible mistakes right there. Either he just threw a pass was horribly behind the cutter, or he misread the away screen, assuming that Kopp would pop rather than curl.

If the latter is the case, that’s actually worse in my opinion. Not only did Kopp make the right read in curling because his defender followed him rather than going underneath, but Kopp almost always curls off of away screen, preferring to shoot mid rangers off of movement, as he’s more of a stand still three point shooter.

To this point, I’ve only pointed out problems that were player-induced. There’s not much Collins and his staff can do when Beran and Young miss open passes, or when Spencer puts his head down and commits a bad turnover. These weren’t coaching-specific problems, they were player problems that you often see in young, inexperienced teams, although part of the lack of ability to stand up to pressure has to fall on the staff’s shoulders as well.

And they can’t get off nearly scot-free for everything. Particularly, the play calling was definitely to blame in the final two minutes of the game, drawing up these very shaky designs.

Listen, I’m the founder of the Pete Nance Hive. I was all on that guy being the star of the program. So it’s with a heavy heart that I say that there is no way that he should be the one that these crunch time plays are designed for. He’s shooting a ghastly 27.8% from three, and has been on an ugly slump, posting offensive ratings of 50 and 48 points per 100 possessions in his last two games.

You could literally throw away every other possession intentionally and only post numbers slightly lower than those ratings.

So whose to blame? The players certainly didn’t handle the pressure of trying to close an upset on the road, committing several errors that are really on themselves to fix. They’ve already looked sloppy and inattentive earlier this season, with three “buy” game losses.

However, it’s fair to say that it’s the coaches job to mentally prepare his players for those type of situations. And despite everything that went wrong, the ‘Cats still had a chance to win and/or tie the game in the final minutes, only for Collins to draw up two bad plays.

Whatever the problem is, it needs to be fixed, and soon.