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Film Room: Why Northwestern men’s basketball keeps giving up open threes

A defense that was already having a tough time is struggling even more as the current losing streak extends.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Two hundred and thirty-sixth. That’s where Minnesota is nationally ranked in team three-point percentage according to KenPom, only connecting on 32% of their jumpers from behind the arc this season.

Despite that pedestrian mark, if you attended the game in Welsh-Ryan Arena Sunday afternoon, you would have thought the Golden Gophers were the second coming of 2018 Villanova, raining down hellfire on every opponent that stood in their path.

It’s easy to say that it was just their day, that the ‘Cats were very unlucky to play Minnesota on the day they shot 14-of-30 from three (resulting in an 83-57 beatdown). There’s definitely truth in that.

But blaming things on bad luck alone is a cop-out, especially when those things have gone wrong throughout conference play (NU is allowing B1G opponents to hit 37 percent of their threes). The Gophers got hot because the Northwestern defense continually made mistakes/strategic errors that gave Rich Pitino’s team wide open looks from deep. It doesn’t matter how bad a team usually shoots. Those are high-level D1 athletes that will take every opportunity to kill you if you make things easy for them.

Let’s take a look at how it all happened.

Northwestern wasted no time in falling apart, surrendering a three-point field goal to Minnesota on the opening possession of the game.

“But Daniel??? That’s not their fault, they got messed up scrambling for a rebound! It happens!” True — it does happen, and that’s a tough shot that Payton Willis hit. But that does not excuse the poor fundamentals the NU defense displayed throughout this sequence. Take a look at this screenshot.

Yes you counted right. All five Wildcats are staring at Alihan Demir as he pounds the ball in the post, completely ignoring the widely preached basketball fundamental of ball-and-man. It’s this preoccupation with the post that continually hurts the ‘Cats, as they overcompensate for big men burrowing into the lane, and in turn give their opponents a plethora of open threes.

Take this play right here, where the doubling of Daniel Oturu directly leads to another clean look for Willis.

There’s so many things wrong about what happened there. Oturu is a very good player, but not good enough that you need to immediately double-team when he’s 17-feet away from the hoop and has his back turned. It’s not like he’s 2003 Carmelo Anthony or something.

Yet even worse than the initial double is what happens after that. Turner, the very player who was doubling, is required to sprint nearly the whole length of the court in order to close out to Willis on time. He is literally being asked to outrun the ball. Even the most old-school ball coaches out there would tell you that ain’t gonna work.

It’s not that you can’t double in that situation. One need look no further than the NBA, where early doubles have been on the rise in an attempt to contain deadly iso scorers like James Harden.

However, the key to most of those strategies is that the initial doubler does NOT bear the burden of covering the entire length of the court. Instead, what ensues is a series of switches in order to keep up with the ball as its swung around the court until the number advantage is neutralized.

In that play above, the problem is solved if Robbie Beran simply slips around Demir and closes out on Willis as Turner now takes the responsibility of post defense. It might leave the ‘Cats with a slight size mismatch inside, but that’s much more preferable letting an opponent get comfortable from behind the arc.

Take a look at how Minnesota benefits from simply trusting their own post defense and not doubling, as well as how they contain the spread pick-and-roll through a series of coordinated switches.

And yes, having Oturu as your post defender does make it easier to resist over-rotating, but a post-up that is not within three feet of the basket is still one of the more inefficient plays in basketball. As long as you have a big body in there that knows what they’re doing, there is no need to double.

Also notice how the Gophers expertly handled this dribble-weave into a spread pick-and-roll. They don’t switch all the action, but they also don’t have Oturu high-hedge or try and trap Pat Spencer, as that would inevitably result in a Ryan Young layup or a Miller Kopp three. Instead, the Minnesota center plays high-drop coverage, which is enough to deter Spencer from driving while also not extending him too far so he can recover to Young, and Gabe Kalscheur stunts at the roller perfectly in order to keep everything in check.

Compare that to how Northwestern handled almost the exact same action from Minnesota:

Young comes out on Marcus Carr too far and stays with him too long, which forces Kopp to completely take Oturu rather than just stunting at him, and unsurprisingly, this yields an easy catch-and-shoot three for Kalscheur.

Having the screener’s defender come that high is something you can get away with if a) you’re playing at the high school level with below-average shooters, or b) you have an NBA team filled with cerebral defenders that can make split-second recoveries and reads. Neither of those situations are in play for Northwestern.

Young should never be that far outside of the paint. Turner is forced to take the roller. Open three for Minnesota. You know the drill.

There’s also a good portion of it that isn’t strategy-based and more an indictment on the players themselves. Multiple players get caught ball-watching and thus lose track of their opposition, as Kopp does here.

Overall it just seems like Northwestern doesn’t have their defensive priorities in the right places. Both the strategy and mindset are designed to focus only on the initial action, such as a post-up or someone dribbling inside the arc, without taking into account the consequences of focusing their attention on those things.

Give Minnesota credit. They hit the shots and used creative offensive sets to generate the looks they wanted. But it was hard not to watch that 26-point drubbing the ‘Cats suffered on their home court and think that there wasn’t something deeply wrong with the way they were playing that day.

Four games to go.