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Nebraska rematch provides important measuring stick for #24 Northwestern

The Wildcats’ bona fides will be tested as they attempt to exact their revenge Wednesday night.

The 2021 iteration of Northwestern women’s basketball (11-4, 9-4 Big Ten) is a slightly counterintuitive one. With a starting lineup that is among the shortest in the country, and their four most-used players (by far) all natural guards, a first-time viewer would expect a team that leans into the small-ball style.

For the most part, they do. The Wildcats run whenever they get the chance and rely a whole lot on turnover margin, to the extent that when control of either of those two factors is wrested away from them, the ‘Cats are in trouble. But the most predictive metric so far this season when it comes to discerning whether NU is winning or losing is not one you’d expect from a team so diminutive: layups.

This year, when making 12 or more shots at the rim in a contest, Northwestern is 10-0. When it scores ten or fewer in such scenarios, it’s 1-4, with the lone victory being the recent victory over Michigan State in which it got to the line 37 times. A lack of fast-break points certainly factors into potential struggles in this category, but for the most part, it’s clear: when opponents can keep the Wildcats — Veronica Burton and Sydney Wood in particular — out of the paint, they have a much easier time controlling the flow of the game.

On December 31st, head coach Amy Williams and Nebraska (9-9, 7-8) put on a masterclass in this respect, building on the Huskers’ near-upset of Northwestern last season to finagle a tight home win on a Sam Haiby buzzer beater despite dressing just eight players. At the core of the Huskers’ defensive philosophy is the desire to funnel potential drivers/slashers to the middle of the floor, where they are almost always met by Kate Cain, one of the country’s elite shot blockers. It worked on New Year’s Eve, with Burton, Wood, and Shaw all limited in their scoring as the Wildcats were held to a 9-of-20 performance at the rim.

UNL forced Northwestern to shoot from the outside, which has been a team weakness all year. Though senior guard Lindsey Pulliam fired away all afternoon, the Wildcats never really got it going. There were plenty of other reasons the ‘Cats were handed the upset (look no further than a 10-of-22 showing at the charity stripe), and Nebraska is certainly a capable squad, but the game exposed a weakness that has been taken advantage multiple times over in NU’s contests since, perhaps most effectively by Rutgers last Thursday in its suffocating defensive effort.

The Huskers are back to full strength and ready to once again be a thorn in the side of an NU team attempting to shore up its NCAA Tournament resumé, and for the Wildcats to avoid a second upset, they need to showcase a team-wide ability to adjust that has been lacking at times this season. All year, their offensive penetration has been completely predicated on dribble-drives from either Burton or Wood. Nebraska has been able to neutralize that, though, so for Northwestern to fully play to its strengths, Joe McKeown may have to get creative with back-cuts, fancy multiple-pick actions or anything else that can free up space underneath.

The Wildcats could beat Nebraska in a jump-shooting competition, though it would not be pretty. But for future matchups with Michigan, Maryland or teams like them in the postseason, who match the Wildcats in talent and in the other parts of the game, developing consistent and varied methods of penetration will be key in keeping the offense from getting bogged down in crucial moments.

This Northwestern team, though it has clear weaknesses, is elite at enough things and features enough special players to be a danger to just about anybody it faces down the stretch and in the postseason. But as last week’s loss, which put an end to an extremely fun 7-1 stretch, made clear, the coaching staff still has a ways to go to optimize the weapons and lineups at its disposal for when they reach those games.

A battle with the pesky Cornhuskers may be just what the Wildcats need to start back up in the right direction.