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A disappointing outing leaves Northwestern in a defensive dilemma

In its past two matchups, it felt like NU had to pick its poison between defending dominant inside play and three-point shooting.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Wildcats might need to take a long look at their defensive strategy after last night’s loss. Their 85-66 defeat on the road against No. 16 Michigan marked the second time in a row that Northwestern attempted to neutralize their opponent’s big man, only to give up a costly barrage of threes.

While Iowa’s terrific three-point shooting was understandable, Michigan’s left the ‘Cats scratching their heads. The Wolverines came into this game shooting 35% as a team from three, yet shot 44% from deep against the Wildcats, including 53% in the first half.

“[Michigan] really shot it great, nine threes in the first half,” said head coach Chris Collins. “Some of them were wide open, and I thought three or four of them were contested and they made them. That’s what makes them very difficult because they have a guy in [Hunter] Dickinson that commands a lot of attention down low. It’s hard to play him with single coverage.”

Dickinson was a problem, specifically early in the second half. After Michigan’s bombardment of threes throughout the first 20 minutes, the 7-foot-2 freshman scored 11 of the Wolverines' first 13 second-half points, wreaking havoc in Northwestern’s interior. He finished the game with 19 points, 15 of which came after the half.

Pete Nance started the game for Northwestern at center, and while he played well to start offensively, he gave up nearly 30 pounds to the larger and more physical Dickinson. Collins thought the best way to slow him down was to double-team him, and while it worked very early on, Michigan figured out how to counter.

Sunday night wasn’t the first time Northwestern attempt to double team an opponent’s center. It happened against Iowa, and the Wildcats held Luka Garza to 18 points on 43% shooting. However, that came at the expense of NU giving up the long ball and letting other players, such as Jordan Bohannon, catch fire from three.

“We were having a really hard time guarding them in man-to-man,” said Collins. “I thought they got into a great rhythm, their offense was humming, they were playing with great pace. We took a look at the zone to see if it could slow them down a little bit. I thought it did for a few minutes. I thought it got us back in the game.”

The physicality of such players like Dickinson plays a huge role. Prior to tonight, the Wildcats hadn’t faced a team with as much length and physicality as the Wolverines, and it made for a difficult matchup for guys like Nance and Ryan Young.

“We really haven’t seen that kind of size and physicality and length in any of our games that we’ve played yet,” Collins said. “I thought it really knocked us back. That front line of [Franz] Wagner, [Isaiah] Livers and Dickinson, they’re big and they’re long on both ends. Their size really bothered us, they physically imposed their will in a lot of ways.”

The Wildcats' lack of extreme physicality down low could become a problem as they continue fighting through the Big Ten gauntlet. Starting Nance at center definitely helps offensively, but if they want to avoid giving up the three-ball, they may need to limit the double teams and trust Nance to defend one-on-one so they aren’t burned from behind the arc.

That will be no easy feat, as the conference is loaded with talented big men, most of whom are taller and heavier than Nance. Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn, whom the ‘Cats will see Thursday, comes in at 7-foot, 285 pounds. Iowa’s Garza is 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds. Wisconsin’s Nate Reuvers is 6-foot-11 and 235 pounds. Nance is just 6-foot-11, 225 pounds, according to the team’s official roster listing.

That’s not to say those are the only talented bigs in the Big Ten. Minnesota’s Liam Robbins, a seven-footer, dropped 27 points and 14 rebounds last night against Ohio State. Purdue’s Trevion Williams, who is 40 pounds heavier than Nance, is averaging 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds this year.

So the question remains whether the NU can trust Nance to single-handedly guard all of these big men, if Collins shuffles lineups to provide more interior help, or if they continue bringing the double and risk giving up the deep ball. Some of their opponents’ recent offensive success is luck, but some of it is not. Either way, it’s a dilemma they’ll have to address sooner rather than later.