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Northwestern’s small ball lineup is having trouble filling the gaps

A couple of inches makes all the difference.

Small ball is fun, small ball is good and small ball is what everyone was sold on for Northwestern women’s basketball entering the 2020-21 season. The losses of Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf — both of whom check in at over 6-feet tall — were expected to hurt, but not this much. Though having a ranked team halfway through the pandemic season might be acceptable for most programs, it feels disappointing for the defending Big Ten champs, who dropped only two conference games all of last season, yet find themselves at 6-3 in conference play (8-3 overall).

The Wildcats’ loss to Indiana can largely be attributed to the their inability to stop Hoosiers center Mackenzie Holmes in the post. The 6-foot-3 sophomore finished with a game-high 22 points on 64.4 True Shooting % (i.e. she scored a bunch and she scored efficiently). Whether it was turning over her left shoulder for overpowering jump hooks off the glass or executing deft step through footwork, NU had no one with the requisite length or strength to slow down Holmes.

Of course the absence of starting center Courtney Shaw played a big part in Holmes’ domination, as the Northwestern sophomore was announced as unavailable shortly before tip off due to an injury, throwing freshmen Paige Mott and Anna Morris into the proverbial fire so to speak. But teams with good interior scorers have attacked the ‘Cats inside even with Shaw (see: Naz Hillmon earlier this season). The bigger issue is that NU’s four-guard lineups, while heavy on offensive creation capabilities, simply aren’t big enough to cover all the gaps they were able to cover on defense last year.

Despite all the accolades she earned, the unique skillset Scheid brought to the team last year might have been under appreciated in the moment. She only enhanced offensive spacing with her ridiculous 47.7% three-point shooting, allowing her to play as an oversized wing at 6-foot-1, and that added length helped plug gaps in Northwestern’s blizzard defense. Scheid might have been the four-best individual defender in the starting lineup last year depending on how you look at it, but height covers a myriad of shortcomings, which is apparent this year for the undersized Wildcats.

Take this baseline out of bounds set that Indiana ran several times during its win at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Holmes and Aleksa Gulbe both flash toward the basket, and their at-rim gravity pulls four NU defenders within a tight knit area of the floor, making Sydney Wood’s closeout all the more difficult. That provides a runway straight to the basket for Nicole Cardano-Hillary. It’s hard to play great defense if you need four bodies to cover two on the inside.

Even on plays in which the Hoosiers’ didn’t directly score, the Wildcats’ lack of length posed an issue. Keep an eye on Veronica Burton here, as she starts on the opposite side from where the ball is inbounded, sprints up top to meet the pass, ducks back inside to stunt at the potential post entry, then reverses course one final time to close out on her original assignment and gets called for a (very debatable) foul on the pull-up jumper.

Whew, that’s tiring just to watch.

It’s not that crazy to see Burton exert superhuman effort on the defensive end of the floor considering she’s a ball hawking savant who averages 4.6 steals per game (100th percentile in the country per Her Hoop Stats!). However, last year’s blizzard didn’t require her to rapidly change direction as much. Sure, there were flying switches off-ball and occasional moments of chaos, but the ‘Cats could rest easier knowing that Scheid and Lindsey Pulliam’s length on the wings would cover holes they couldn’t quite get to. With Scheid gone and Pulliam moved up higher on the court, that simply isn’t happening this season.

The blizzard defense relies on complex and high leverage switching off-ball, not rapid swarming and clustering of the court in unneeded areas of the court. Yet, look how laser focused the every Wildcat but Paige Mott is on this possession try to deter a post entry pass.

Both Burton and Jordan Hamilton sell out and leave their feet to block the entry angle (Hamilton even doing so with here opponent yet to kill her dribble), and Pulliam and Wood both sink down into the purple hardwood to surround Holmes with a swath of bodies. The pass is forced inside anyways, allowing Northwestern to successfully deflect it out of bounds, but a correct read to any other place on the court would have resulted in an open attempt for the Hoosiers.

In a last ditch effort to salvage the game as the ‘Cats went nearly 15 minutes of game time with only a single made field goal, Coach Joe McKeown inserted the fleet-footed Kaylah Rainey (who stands at only 5-foot-6) in favor of either of his available centers in an attempt to juice the offense. That only exacerbated NU’s problems covering space defensively.

Just one brief communication lapse between Hamilton and Wood defending a ball screen up top gets them both trailing the driver, and the rotations by both Rainey and Burton aren’t enough to bother Indiana’s Grace Berger, resulting in insurance free throws for the Hoosiers.

I’m all in favor of small ball, but one has to understand that the concept is really a misnomer. The correct moniker is “skilled ball”, where a player’s complementary skill level to the other players on the court is valued over their mere stature. Abbie Wolf provided strength defending inside and post scoring, while Abi Scheid covered open space with her height at the forward spot and gave the offense an open floor on the other end. Everyone knew they’d be missed in the ‘21 season, but the degree to which may have been underestimated entering this highly anticipated year.