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How does Northwestern defend post ups? The answer is Anthony Gaines.

The senior captain has been deployed on defense in a fascinating way so far this season.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

In its first Big Ten loss of the 2020-21 season, Northwestern could at least hang its head on the fact that it held Luka Garza — the current frontrunner for every single national player of the year award imaginable — to his second-lowest scoring output of the season and his only game with a negative Net rating, per BartTorvik. While there’s no disputing the Wildcats’ effective defense on Garza, I took to Twitter to point out that in slowing the Hawkeyes’ big man, they surrendered openings to Iowa’s squadron of sharpshooters.

In response to my tweet, Forget the Protocol’s Ben Goren aka beng aka grand supreme Mick McCall appreciator noted that he’d seen said double teams from NU before.

Thus, your neighborhood friendly basketball nerd here went to work and watched all 61 of Northwestern’s defensive post up possessions on Synergy to test Ben’s theory (Yes, I am a sicko), recording whether or not the ‘Cats doubled the post once the ball was entered. Here’s what I found.

Northwestern Post Double Frequency

Post Ups by NU Opponent Possessions Doubled Percentage of Post Ups Doubled
Post Ups by NU Opponent Possessions Doubled Percentage of Post Ups Doubled
11 9 81.81%
10 5 50%
8 2 25%
3 0 0%
7 1 14.29%
5 2 40%
3 0 0%
14 0 0%
Total Total Total Double Percentage
61 19 31.15%

(Even if these numbers technically prove beng was wrong, he’s still very cool and you should all go follow him and read his stuff. I hear he likes the Sixers).

It’s clear that Chris Collins and his staff do not love doubling the post, but faced against in-the-lane monsters in Garza and Ohio State’s EJ Liddell, the coaches opted for a change in strategy. That decision proved wise, as Garza and Liddell average 1.123 and 1.029 points per post up, good for 78th and 88th percentile, respectively, but were held to 0.8 and 0.75 points per post up shot in their matchups against Northwestern.

However, when grinding through the game tape, one thing stuck out to me above all else — Northwestern only doubles with Anthony Gaines.

Strange as it may sound, almost all of its 19 doubles came via the senior guard. Gaines tends to lurch in from the weak side when defending a man standing above the break, and by my judgment he seemed pretty effective at flustering opponents in the post.

My best guess would be that the NU coaching staff wants to leverage Gaines length and quickness on these doubles. As long as one of Pete Nance or Ryan Young is behind the big to keep him occupied, seeing the 6-foot-4 guard with a large frame sprinting directly at them in their line of sight can fluster these college players, baiting them into ill advised passes and decisions.

And yes, it’s very clear that Gaines is THE post up doubler. Possessions with different NU defenders running over to help were hard to come by. Just take these four possessions against Indiana, where Gaines himself is the primary post defender, yet no extra bodies are sent his way.

Gaines recorded two stops in four tries against the Hoosiers, which is honestly impressive for a not-too-oversized guard. Still, on the surface it appears somewhat strange how hyper-specific to their personnel NU approaches doubling the post.

If Gaines is not on the floor, they’ll sometimes completely eschew doubling no matter the potential mismatch inside. In this example, while it ultimately does not hurt them, it’s quite odd that no one helps 6-foot-2 Ty Berry as he attempts to bang down low with 6-foot-11 Marcus Bingham. But as things go, no Gaines often means no double.

The ‘Cats couldn’t always send Gaines toward the towering Garza on Tuesday night, as the dominant low post scorer played 13 more minutes per game than Northwestern’s senior guard, and the Hawkeyes were determined to attack in the post with Gaines resting. All in all, Garza himself shot out of the post 10 times against Northwestern, but the three times Gaines came flying in for a double, Iowa failed to score.

Compare that to this early possession where NU attempted to send Robbie Beran from the top of the key toward Garza in order to prevent the scorer. Narrator: “He did not prevent the score.” Beran half-heartedly jogs toward the paint, a sharp contrast to the furious attacks ushered by Gaines.

Garza also deserves credit, as he turned immediately away from the incoming pressure. He did this a few times in the first half, usually resulting in a score, before the ‘Cats began to rely more heavily on Gaines. It’s bad effort from Beran, but sometimes great players make smart plays.

Overall, Northwestern’s post up defense is one of the few aspects of their team defense that has struggled. They’re allowing 0.836 points per possession on post ups per Synergy, placing them in the 42nd percentile. This is partially skewed by the ‘Cats playing three straight games against three of the nation’s best post players in Garza, Liddell and Trayce Jackson-Davis (TJD is in the 89th percentile scoring in the post), but it could still use improvement with an otherwise solid unit.

Regardless, it’s fascinating how NU has determined that Anthony Gaines is its secret post up-destroying weapon, seeking to unleash him whenever a big guy starts to get it going down low.