As you may have learned from reading his works on this site this past year, Daniel Olinger is a game film nerd who loves nothing more than breaking down what he sees on the field and/or court. To put this habit to good use, he’ll be writing a weekly column, “Things I’ve Noticed,” in which he breaks down things he’s noticed for one of the three flagship teams we cover here at Inside NU — men’s basketball, women’s basketball or football. This week, he takes a look at the defending Big Ten Champions women’s basketball squad.
1. The traditional but also non-traditional X
Attacking a zone is all about hitting the gaps the defense gives you. A 2-3 zone suppresses driving lanes, especially toward the middle of the floor but leaves open the mid-post (from elbow to elbow) and what is called “the sneak spot” on the baseline (the space in between the block and the corner three).
A common action used to expose the 2-3’s weak spots is “X”, where three offensive players station themselves in the gaps on the perimeter and the two others start inside at the opposite sneak spots. Once the ball is swung to one side, the opposite side sneak player cuts to the elbow on the same side of the ball. You can see the basic motion in the picture down below (excuse my terrible art-ish work).
Should no option be open on the first look, the ball gets swung back across the perimeter, and the two inside players exchange positions while cutting to the opposite side, forming an “X” in their motion, hence the name.
Yours truly may or may not have feasted off of baseline sneak jumpers in high school, despite being only 5-foot-11. It may seem counterintuitive to put your smaller players on the inside, but in X action it really isn’t. The goal of the concept is to generate easy catch and shoot jumpers from the short mid-range, not to bash and bruise smaller players on the inside. That’s why the ‘Cats sent shot-taker extraordinaire Lindsey Pulliam into the X on the very first play of their January game vs Iowa, who was running a 2-3.
That’s a clean look from about 13-feet for one of the best scorers in the country. Great offense.
While it won’t be an option this year, NU also had the benefit of throwing one of their traditional bigs in the X last year without sacrificing any shooting prowess by sending long range bomber Abi Scheid into the high post.
But wait! You, the observant reader, may have noticed that the play above was not standard X, but a cool variation that incorporated more motion. It starts in the same fashion as the previous play, with Wolf and Pulliam on the inside, executing the standard X cuts off the first pass.
Once the ball is reversed, though, that’s when Scheid gets involved, as she slowly maneuvers across the extended free throw line while Pulliam makes a triangular motion to the opposite sneak, and Wolf struts out to the corner, keeping a triangle between them at all times. It’s clear the instruction is for Pulliam to stay in the normal X motion from high post to sneak, while Scheid and Wolf are put on straight lines from the corner to the elbow. Once one of them reaches the corner, Pulliam drops to the sneak, opening up the elbow flash.
Below you can see that continuous triangle formation.
Also notice this back cut here by Sydney Wood to finish the whole motion, an action she executed several times throughout this game.
Speaking of back cuts...
2. Back cuts vs the blizzard
The blizzard is one of the best defenses in the country, as the ‘Cats allowed over 70 points only four times all season. However, one of those 70 point outbursts came at the hands of the Hawkeyes, and a large part of their effective attack was how their tendency to back cut almost non-stop worked well against the zone defense.
There’s a lot to digest there, but the main idea is that once an Iowa player swings the ball across the perimeter, they are to wheel through the lane, then fan out to the corner in order to counter how high NU placed Pulliam and Scheid on the wings.
Look at how Veronica Burton helps down on that cut. It’s the right move, bumping down to the cutter and clogging the paint, but Iowa is eventually going to counter that strategy Burton execute with fellow guard Wood on the top.
The Hawkeyes swing the ball back to the top, Wood sinks down to guard the cut while another shooter lifts to distract Pulliam, and Monika Czinano steps in front of Wolf to occupy her in the post and prevent her from getting out to the corner.
From there, it’s an a wide open kick out to 37 percent three-point shooter Gabbie Marshall in the short corner, and an easy triple for Iowa. The ‘Cats struggled to defend this constant movement the entire game, as the Hawkeyes kept overloading one side and NU didn’t properly adjust by overloading to that side as well.
Again, this is a lot of cherry picking from a team’s worst game in an otherwise stellar defensive season. It’s nothing to worry about, but something to keep in mind when Northwestern faces the better teams on its schedule this next season.
3. Sydney Wood — defensive savant
I love digging into the nitty gritty, just figuring out why each team implements a specific strategy, what they’re thinking and all the counters coaches like to throw at each other. That said, sometimes it’s just more fun to appreciate awesome plays by individual athletes when they happen, like this sick hustle play Sydney Wood made early on in the Iowa game.
Rewatching the @nuwbball game from earlier this year against Iowa. Even though it's a loss, @SydWood_ 's effort on defense has really stood out. This steal and save to @linzp99 was just a fantastic hustle + instincts play from a great defender. pic.twitter.com/KFku3YLjd3— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) October 13, 2020
Wood can get overlooked when watching this guard-dependent team. She doesn’t have the flash of a Pulliam who drops 19 points per game with pull-ups galore, or the bonkers steal totals of a Veronica Burton, and her 1-of-6 mark from downtown all of last season hemorrhages some of the team’s spacing.
But man, if she doesn’t work hard on the defensive end of the floor, I don’t know who does. Too often, good defenders are either categorized as having incredible physical tools OR being a savvy, intelligent player that reads the opponents’ offense. The truth is that the best defenders are a combination of both. Wood has speed in her feet to cover ground and quick hands to rack up deflections, and as you can see in the play above, she’s adept at anticipating the next pass and/or movement on the court.
Remember those back cuts that killed the ‘Cats early on? The Hawkeyes went to them less frequently after Wood blew this play up.
Burton helped out to cover the swing pass, Wood helped off the shooter once she saw the Iowa guard point out the back cut, and from there it was a done deal. Awesome.
4. Reminder No. 34,719 that Veronica Burton rules
Anyone whose read my work from the past year knows that Burton is one of my favorite athletes to watch, ever. I’ve written about her awesomeness on the court and the work ethic that her family instilled in her at an early age, and at least once every game she makes one play that just makes me drop my notebook and clap my hands in adoration.
In their 61-56 win over Purdue this past season, it was this absolute dime to Wolf off the pick and roll.
Purdue executes a drop and quick hedge on that play, hoping to stop Burton from the turning the corner but not committing too hard in order to recover to Wolf on the roll. A normal point guard might get startled by having such a sudden stunt from a lanky defender, but not a high IQ guard like Burton.
She immediately recognizes the coverages and plants her left foot hard in order to generate force backward and elevate as she floats the pass to the rolling Wolf. Also, notice how she turns her head ever so slightly, staring at the defender further from her, reading her movement, and in the blink of an eye determines that she’s moving forward and is about to leave Wolf open. Super computers would process this at a slower speed.
This is the most fun team to cover in the entire university in my opinion, and Burton’s on-court wizardry is one of the main reasons why.
Northwestern football begins its season under the lights at Ryan Field on October 24. To stay updated on all of our football coverage, subscribe to the Inside NUsletter, delivered to your inboxes every Friday. Next week we’ll roll out a comprehensive season preview issue featuring all of our preseason content, game week coverage, features, exclusive articles and guest predictions. Every week thereafter it’ll prepare you for Saturday’s game and more. It’s your one-stop shop for everything Wildcat football.