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Film Room: The Brilliance of the Blizzard

A long overdue breakdown of one of the best teams in the country’s unique defense.

S. J. Carrera, Inc.

In the 21st century, Northwestern team sports have largely become synonymous with slow, methodical play. While most people associate that trend with Pat Fitzgerald’s hard-hitting, old school approach to football, and Chris Collins’ tendency to try and grind out sets on offense, it’s also true of how the women’s basketball team plays under Joe McKeown.

The 22nd-ranked Wildcats (16-2, 6-1 Big Ten) rank 304th out of 351 total teams in possessions per game, preferring to play at about as slow a pace as possible. But while the two men’s teams have won a combined nine games in the 2019-20 seasons, the women’s team is 16-2, first in the Big Ten, and shaping up to be a serious contender come March.

Plenty of that success has been spurred by their impressive defense. Northwestern is currently 13th in the country in points allowed per game, and holds the same ranking in Her Hoop Stats’ overall defensive rating. The ‘Cats are also 15th in both points per play allowed and steal rate.

If you’ve tuned into some of the BTN broadcasts of Northwestern’s impressive recent wins, you’ll often hear the announcers reference “The Blizzard,” which is the catchy moniker the ‘Cats have for the unique hybrid zone defense that has been the catalyst for such impressive results.

But how exactly does Joe McKeown’s patented “Blizzard” operate, and why has it been so effectively employed by this team in particular? Let’s take a look at the film to find out.

As former Northwestern assistant coach Ali Jacques explains in her breakdown of the trademark defense, the blizzard is a 1-1-3 match-up zone that relies on trapping and creating chaos.

The top defender (for these Wildcats, almost always sophomore guard Sydney Wood, one of the best perimeter defenders in the country) is to cause havoc and constantly force the ball out of the middle. That second “one” in the defense (typically the aforementioned Burton, the Big Ten’s steals leader) is always directly in line with the top, so that if the top defender were to get beat off the dribble, the offensive player would be met by another obstruction in her path.

After that, the top defender rotates over to cover the spot that was just vacated by the now-occupied defender, and from there a chain reaction of rotations ensues in which every player is covering for her teammate at all times.

Even after Wood’s gamble for a steal failed at the point of attack, the ‘Cats still strung together a beautiful series of X-outs and communication. Burton perfectly tracks the ball handler, aware that she is forcing her toward Abbie Wolf, and the two switch their assignments as if they were of the same mind.

It first appears that Lindsey Pulliam is just freelancing when she leaves her position to double with Wolf. However, she knows that Burton is sliding over to take her opening, Wolf will then cover for Burton and she will now guard the player that she was approaching on her own. Burton’s lightning-quick hands poke the ball free, and the Blizzard is just getting started in Bloomington.

You can really see how interchangeable the parts of the Blizzard are in this next clip, where Burton and Wood switch roles without so much as a moment’s hesitation. Having cerebral, intelligent defenders like these two sophomores is what allows you to play this kind of complicated defense, as they aren’t concerned about some rigid structure, but rather, solely with reading and reacting to the action going on in front of them.

I don’t even know how to properly introduce the next defensive possession you’re about to see. It’s a work of art that should be hung somewhere in a museum instead of simply being an easily accessible internet clip.

Just a short list of awesome things that happened in that thirty second span:

  1. Wood and Burton again seamlessly transition, as Wood has been instructed to initially follow Ali Patberg (Indiana’s best scorer), forcing the Hoosiers to change their initial design in their first possession of the second quarter.
  2. Burton slides over from the opposite side of the court to cover the pick and roll, and her rotation is covered perfectly by the wings, with Abi Scheid bumping down to the open corner, and Jordan Hamilton moving out of weak side help in the post to cover the vacated perimeter.
  3. With ten seconds left in the shot clock, the ball is kicked out from the post to the top of the key, and after Scheid bites on the pump fake, any other zone defense would be picked apart. But not so with the Blizzard. Burton is lying in wait to deter the drive, and the moment after she jumps, Scheid immediately turns and sprints to the wing, as Hamilton points out the soon to be open opposition on the back side.
  4. Wolf stands up the drive, and Burton swoops in and plucks the ball free to force the turnover (if you’re noticing that there are a lot of mentions of Burton, it’s because she has a legitimate case as the best defensive guard in the country, currentlaveraging 3.8 steals per game, and has shot up my all-time favorite players list).

Indiana is ranked 25th in the nation in points per game, and 15th in Her Hoops Stats’ offensive rating. They’re one of the best teams in the country, and they still were befuddled by the Blizzard, a defense that they have seen plenty of during McKeown’s tenure.

It’s a constant mind trick, where Northwestern seemingly has left a player wide open and ready for an easy shot, only for a defender to close that distance while the pass is being thrown. And the ‘Cats’ impeccable lineup construction (thanks largely to some pretty impressive recruiting and coaching), with Burton and Wood leading the way and capable veterans in Scheid, Pulliam, Wolf, Hamilton, and others backing them up, has nearly perfected it.

After a series of beautiful X-outs that Wood comes over to orchestrate on both sides of the court, the Hoosiers think they have warped the zone enough to generate an easy catch-and-shoot for Aleksa Gulbe from the elbow. Once again, they are mistaken. Pulliam realizes that they are not looking for a skip to the far side, and properly pressures Gulbe into a miss.

As we’ve seen, the Blizzard is pretty lethal at disrupting an opponent’s offense, especially with the length, athleticism, speed, reflexes, and smarts these ‘Cats have at their disposal. Which begs the question: why don’t more teams use it?

Well, there are momentary slip-ups, where all the constant rotation causes them to align in a 2-3 rather than the 1-1-3, and because they’re still rotating like a 1-1-3, they can leave capable shooters standing wide open from behind the arc. In fact, the Blizzard’s most noticeable weakness is weak-side three point shooting: opponents tally 30 percent of their points from deep, a mark that is 236th in the country.

Take this play, for example.

The Blizzard also typically relies on being able to defend the post one-on-one, as it’s the one area on the court where the ‘Cats often don’t trap and rotate in a crazed panic. When they opt not to double the post, it puts Wolf and her backup, Courtney Shaw, under a lot of pressure.

The combination of that and struggles to defend the arc created the blowout loss to Iowa, who dominated the painted area. And though Wolf has impressed with regards to her post defense of late, and Shaw has grow ever more capable in that regard, neither is quite to the level of elite on the block, and at times, that costs them.

Overall, the Blizzard is tedious. One of Northwestern’s goals is to create passes, movement, and the turnovers that come with it (they force nearly 19 of them per game).

Though the defense is designed to be difficult to break down individually (opponents’ assisted shot rate, or the percentage of their baskets that is assisted, is 73.3 percent, tops in the country), those performing it have to be very intelligent basketball players constantly making the correct rotations, as any incorrect read can lead to a plethora of open looks.

They also have to be aggressive enough to create havoc and force steals out of their traps, while also showing discipline in staying out of foul trouble, as their presence on the court is often worth more than any two points they might surrender.

It’s hard to get the right set of players to enact something this intricate on defense, but here in his 12th year as women’s basketball head coach, McKeown has compiled the perfect cast of players, allowing him to fully utilize his trademark scheme. Indeed, along with all of the other impressive numbers the team has compiled, they also rank 18th and 14th nationally in foul rate and fouls per game, respectively.

After all, not many teams could make this type of stop and transition into a bucket, let alone do so with the game on the line.

But it was Jordan Hamilton’s hands and awareness, plus Sydney Wood’s quick thinking and impressive on-ball defense, added to Lindsey Pulliam’s hustle, and, finally, combined with Veronica Burton’s presence and instincts, that capped off a massive comeback with an iconic defensive effort.

That perfect mixture of hustle, skill and higher basketball thinking culminated in a play that helped secure the top spot in the conference for the Wildcats. If they keep running the Blizzard at their current level of efficiency, there’s absolutely no reason they shouldn’t contend for the Big Ten title all the way down to the wire.

And with the NCAA Tournament and a mass of teams who haven’t yet seen McKeown and co’s ferocious defense hopefully looming, Northwestern looks ready to make some serious noise at the national level, too.