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Film Room: Why defending the pick-and-roll was a problem for the ‘Cats

I blame the phones.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

In his first six years as coach at Northwestern, Chris Collins’ teams finished 23rd, 151st, 87th, 32nd, 90th and 19th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. Except for the 2014-15 season, they finished in the top third of all teams when it came to that end of the floor.

Then 2020 happened, and the ‘Cats dropped back down to 150th in KenPom en route to an 8-23 season. Despite only giving up 189 made three pointers on the season (a better mark than 278 Division I teams), the season was littered with lapses where opponents found themselves standing wide open behind the arc, often at the worst possible moments. Upon research, most of these missteps can be attributed to faulty pick-and-roll coverage.

For the majority of Collins’ tenure, Northwestern has often employed a strategy of doubling the pick-and-roll and has done so quite effectively in some of their past seasons. What often burned the team was not a roll man being left completely unguarded in the paint after setting the ball screen. No Big Ten team worth watching would be incompetent enough to not rotate to a wide open 6-foot-9-plus behemoth barreling toward the rim. Rather, it was the players the ‘Cats were rotating off of that killed them.

Take this play from the game against Michigan in Welsh-Ryan when a barrage of three pointers in the first half put NU in a deep hole.

Pat Spencer bumps down to prevent the easy lob to Jon Teske but has no chance of veering back out to contest the shot of Eli Brooks lest he develop super human speed. That play exposed the inherent problem in doubling — at least one opposing player has to be left open. The key is leaving the correct player open — the player that isn’t one pass away.

As you can see in this screenshot below, it should have been Miller Kopp who rotated, not Spencer, as his man was two passes away.

Even if Zavier Simpson hits the open shooter with a good one-handed toss, the added length of the pass would give Kopp ample time to recover.

This same mistake also occurred in the most devastating loss of the season, when Purdue rattled off 11 points in the final two minutes. Robbie Beran should have come over from the right corner to tag the roller rather than A.J. Turner from the near side, not to mention that Turner was ceding an open look to a 38.3 percent three point shooter in Sasha Stefanovic.


But this isn’t just a quick fix issue where the team stops doubling and everything turns peachy. In the modern era of point guards being able to pull-up from three given the tiniest sliver, point of attack defenders have to sacrifice a step to go over the screen and hope that they can bother the shooter from behind with a late contest.

Spencer and Boo Buie simply did not have the quickness nor the length to do this, meaning that if the man covering the screener didn’t come up to double all the way, it usually resulted in an open jumper for a the ball handler.

On both these plays, Buie and Spencer get wiped out, while Beran and Ryan Young get caught in no man’s land — half-doubling and half-dropping. You can get away with this when your a team like the Sixers or the Bucks and have Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons stalking guards from behind and closing any distance created by a screen with ease. You can’t get away with it when you have two point guards who aren’t exactly the definition of length and quickness.

In light of this, fans should expect important roles for newcomers Chase Audige and Ty Berry in 2020-21, as well as the returning Anthony Gaines, who all project as more athletic perimeter defenders. Not to mention, all the experience gained from this very young team should help them improve on those blown rotations that constantly plagued the team and help the bigs execute what a double is intended to do: force the ball handler to retreat backward.

This requires both aggression and foot speed from the defender, and in the play below, Jared Jones pulls both off perfectly.

Aya Dosunmu, a potential pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, can’t make the optimal skip to the roller, and the need for an extra pass gives Jones enough time to recover and battle his man in the post with no advantage in numbers being gained by the Illini.

Jones, who announced earlier this offseason that he would be entering the transfer portal, will unfortunately not be an option for the Northwestern defense to employ next season. However, Pete Nance is a rather nimble big man with the capability to switch and pressure guards on doubles, so it’s quite possible that more there could be more lineups with Nance at center in 2020-21. While not a stranger to the position, Nance only saw time as the biggest man on the floor 18 percent of the time as a sophomore.

Northwestern’s pick-and-roll defense will probably be better the next time they take the court. It’d be hard to imagine it getting much worse considering Collins’ track record and the benefits of a young team transitioning into a group of veterans. But who ultimately knows? It’s 2020 after all, and everything should be on the table at this point.