EVANSTON — Make that four.
Four games this year, that is, in which Northwestern men’s basketball (6-15, 1-10 B1G) held a lead of five points or more with less than five minutes to go, and then proceeded to blow said lead and lose the game.
“In my opinion, our record is not indicative of where we should be,” said Coach Collins following the team’s astonishing late-game collapse against Purdue, blowing an eight point lead in under three minutes to lose 61-58.
Regardless of whether that’s true, there’s a more important question to ask. Why does this team always find ways to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory? And specifically, what has caused the crunch-time offense to stagnate to the point that it’s non-functional?
This is hardly a new trend for ‘Cats’ fans. Just take a look at this tweet from friend of the blog Kevin Sweeney:
FWIW: KenPom’s “luck” ranks Northwestern 346th. Last year, they were 348th. The year before, they ranked 326th.— Kevin Sweeney (@CBB_Central) February 2, 2020
“Luck” demonstrates the difference between expected & actual winning percentage.
Either someone put a hex on Northwestern basketball, or there’s a coaching problem.
Yeah, those KenPom luck ratings are not too fond of how Collins has guided this team through tough situations the last few years.
But as that tweet insinuates, it’s not some supernatural force that’s causing these problems. It’s Northwestern that’s causing these problems, whether it be terrible offensive play calling, or a lack of big time playmaking by the players.
This is a complete chronological rundown of everything the Wildcat offense did in those fateful four and a half minutes, with some game clips interspersed. Brace yourselves.
1. Up eight with a chance to step on their opponents’ throats, Collins and his staff instead treat Boo Buie like he’s James Harden, giving him a half-hearted ball screen before an iso into a setback three that doesn’t come close. It’s understandable that they’d want to run some clock and minimize the chance at a turnover, but this was a wasted possession that would come back to haunt them.
2. Late in the shot clock, Jared Jones catches the ball with at least ten feet of space, and room to shoot or drive from the top of the key, yet decides to turn his back and post up thin air for a solid five seconds. You’re not going to believe this, but this possession ended in a shot-clock violation.
3. This one hurt. Pat Spencer holds the ball for most of the possession, and Collins calls for a Spain pick-and-roll (a staple of modern basketball where the roller also receives a back screen from a shooter) that forced Purdue’s Aaron Wheeler to bump down and leave Robbie Beran open in the corner. Unfortunately, Beran is woefully off line and Purdue is starting to gain hope.
4. Naturally, a possession of Spencer holding the all the entire time was followed up by the exact same thing, only this time it wasn’t salvaged with any creative action at the end. Spencer flies out of control into the paint, barreling into Purdue’s Trevion Williams before losing the ball out of bounds.
5. This was the only possession in which NU showed any urgency, as the after timeout play resulted in a quick drive-and-kick to Beran for another open corner three. Again, the freshman forward couldn’t knock it down.
6. The kicker—a perfect combo of absent play calling and poor situational awareness. Having the ball with 53 seconds to play and a chance at a two for one, the ‘Cats instead end up with another isolation for Spencer (though it should be noted that Collins told us in the postgame that they wanted something quick and Purdue forced them to back out of it). Great.
Miraculously, this actually generates a great scoring opportunity, as Williams foolishly doubles Spencer and leaves Young wide open underneath the basket. And, well ...
Young puts the ball on the floor needlessly, rips through against no defender and commits the game’s decisive turnover.
The only time the ‘Cats touched the ball after that was on the desperation full-court play with three seconds left, in which they honestly had their best play design of the final 4.5 minutes. Go figure.
When thinking about what lost Northwestern this game, I kept getting drawn back to this quote from Purdue’s head coach Matt Painter.
“They got some good looks from three, but we just kept saying in the huddle, make some of the other guys take those shots, don’t leave Miller Kopp, don’t leave Boo Buie.”
Purdue was clearly okay with giving open shots in the final minutes to guys not named Kopp, Buie or Spencer, and they were proved wise in that strategy.
Jones looked lost and confused, Beran missed his open threes, Pete Nance was practically invisible and Young hesitated when he didn’t need to.
Compare that to the “others” for the Boilermakers. Sasha Stefanovic and Jahaad Proctor didn’t just make the shots the NU players missed, they made the two biggest shots of the game.
Even if it’s more individualistic than other team sports, basketball still requires a squad to have multiple players capable of stepping up when an opportunity is presented. It was the difference in those seemingly less significant players that made the difference tonight.
But the fact that several inexperienced players failed to step up shouldn’t be used as an excuse to defend the late-game play calling. Why were Kopp and Buie constantly relegated to the standing in the corners? It’s almost as if Northwestern immediately conceded to Painter’s demand that other players on the team shoot.
“The biggest thing I could do is just to move without the ball,” said Kopp when asked about how he could deal with the specific attention he was drawing from the Purdue defense.
It’s clear that Kopp wasn't targeting the coaching staff or anything, but it wouldn’t hurt to see specific play designs implemented that generate easy looks for the team’s primary scorer in the game’s most important moments. Just look at how Purdue used a simple motion weave to create an opening for Eric Hunter Jr.
Nothing too fancy. Nothing that takes some upper echelon of basketball knowledge to design. Just a quick, purposeful play that takes advantage of the defense’s scheme and gets the ball in the hand of a quality scorer.
In fact, it was another simple variation of this play that ultimately spelled doom for the Wildcats.
Purdue did what Northwestern didn’t. They schemed against their opponents’ weakness and exploited it. Knowing that the ‘Cats prefer the archaic high hedge and nearest man help as a form of pick-and-roll defense, Painter drew up a play to attack that weakness. A.J. Turner is left in a two-on-one scenario and forced to leave Stefanovic open.
“For me right now it’s about trying to keep our guys in the fight, you know, so they continually get back up when they get knocked down,” said Collins postgame.
Helping the team stay mentally engaged should be a priority, but so should the X’s and O’s. That’s the reason the team keeps getting knocked down.
Last night wasn’t some complete unraveling of a team’s confidence thanks to multiple turnovers and obvious mistakes in a short period of time. In fact, none of their late game collapses this season can be described that way! Instead, like the others, it was a long stretch of poorly played basketball that culminated in disaster.
Like he has all season, Collins made reference to this team’s youth in his postgame presser. “You know,” the head coach said, “we closed this game with three freshmen and a sophomore on the court.”
That’s all well and good, but it wasn’t obvious, youthful mistakes that cost this team the game. In fact, this season, those have rarely cropped up in crunch time scenarios. Instead, Collins and his staff, as evidenced by the above layout of their end of game offensive strategy, just got plain out-coached. This shouldn’t be a 6-15 team, he’’s right about that.
But looking at last night, it’s not hard to understand why they’re stuck with that record.