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Film Room: The underrated defense of Lindsey Pulliam

The junior guard’s spectacular play on offense shouldn’t overshadow how much she contributes on the other end of the floor.

Stephen J. Carrera

Lindsey Pulliam is a professional bucket-getter. There’s no arguing that.

Despite her occasional inefficiency and overwhelming usage rate, the fact of the matter is that Pulliam can at any moment of the game get to the spot on the floor that she wants to be at, and shoot the shot she desires. The junior can be the entire offense if need be — such a rare skill in the college ranks that many ‘Cats fans acknowledge her as the best player on the team.

But one thing that usually doesn’t get brought up in the discussion around Pulliam? That would be her defense. She’s not talked about as some detriment that needs to be hidden at all costs, but never is she put in the same conversation as Veronica Burton and Sydney Wood, the other two guards in the starting lineup.

It’s true that she isn’t quite on the same tier as those two, who will most likely receive All-Big Ten and maybe even All-American honors for their efforts. But you don’t become the 20th-best defense nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions (and 11th in overall defensive efficiency, per Her Hoop Stats) with just two players. Every player in the Blizzard scheme contributes to those impressive statistics, and the fact that Pulliam, the anchor of the team’s offense, has fully bought in too shows just how special of a player she is.

Unless a player has significant shortcomings in the athleticism department, simply giving a substantial amount of effort is the key to acceptable defense. For her part, Pulliam clearly checks that box.

Rebounding is a part of defense, and even after letting Rutgers’ Zipporah Broughton get behind her for good position, Pulliam does not quit on the play and flies in for the crucial board, displaying her natural ball-hawking instincts as she does so.

Once basketball players cross a certain offensive echelon, the tendency is for them to dog it on that end of the floor in an effort to conserve energy. Not Pulliam. Just from being in the crowd, it’s easy to notice her constantly communicating switches and bumping down to the proper rotation.

That’s great defense from Pulliam even if she hardly moves on the possession. With the ball on the weak-side, she properly slides in front of the post. Said movement is followed by two Rutgers players crossing to the wing and the corner on her side of the court, which Pulliam handles beautifully by stepping in front of the initial option, then sliding Burton over to her defender because she knows that there is about to be an open player behind her.

It’s subtle, but that whole possession is blown up by Pulliam’s court awareness and alert communication.

Burton and Wood’s quickness is often cited when showing their defensive capability, but not enough is made of Pulliam’s physical strength. Most guards stay clear of the paint for fear of getting bullied in the post by bigs, but Pulliam is able to handle herself in the lower wing of the Blizzard and can bother offensive players into misses without any help defense or traps from her teammates despite standing just 5’10”.

It’s hard to blame Tyia Singleton for thinking this would work. She has a clear height advantage and sees the opening for a duck-in, assuming that she need only to turn over her left shoulder, resulting in either free throws or an uncontested lay-in.

But Pulliam dissuades all of that. She first does a good job to make sure Singleton can’t secure too deep of position in the paint, then, when contacted with the turn in Singleton’s post-move, she barely moves at all, successfully holding her ground while keeping her hands up to avoid the foul.

These are little things, but they all matter in the scope of what makes Pulliam’s defense so valuable.

She doesn’t make savant-level reads or completely lock down the other team’s most dangerous threats, but, watching her play, it’s clear that she has the constant inner drive to grind on defense that coaches long for in their players, despite averaging over 33 minutes per game.

What other star scorer perfectly boxes out a taller player and expends as much energy as possible to track down a loose rebound while up 17 in the fourth quarter?

The easy thing is to just let the defense have that one, to not risk your body in any way after you’ve already secured the victory. But Pulliam wasn’t satisfied with that. She wanted the ball, just like you can tell that she wanted to play tough defense when her voice rang through the quiet Welsh-Ryan Arena possession after possession.

A lot of players with her iso and pull-up heavy style get stereotyped as selfish stat-seekers that prefer their own accomplishment over the team’s. Pulliam is clearly not built like that. Instead, she’s a winner on both ends of the floor, who will do whatever it takes to help the team.

No wonder Northwestern is 23-3 and on the verge of doing something only the 1989-90 team has ever done before in the history of Wildcat basketball: earning a Big Ten Championship.