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Analyzing the offensive adjustment that helped Northwestern break the nation’s best scoring defense

Smart school, smart coaching.

Bahram Mark Sobhani

Every single outlet and media personality echoed the same message leading into Northwestern’s First Round NCAA Tournament game against 10-seed UCF — this is going to be a defensive-minded battle. The Knights came into the game ranked first in the entire country in points allowed per game and in the 99th percentile in Defensive Rating with only 75.8 points allowed per 100 possessions per Her Hoop Stats, while the ‘Cats haven’t exactly been a scoring juggernaut throughout the 2020-21 season.

It was largely a slow, turnover-laden game, but NU managed to piece together the fourth-most productive scoring performance any team has put up against UCF this season in a 62-51 win to advance to the Round of 32. Early on, the Northwestern offense was largely reduced to “Give the ball to Lindsey Pulliam somewhere 15 to 18 feet away from the basket and hope she makes a tough shot”, and that’s fine to a point when she was playing like she did on Monday.

But Northwestern’s entire attack this year has been based around Veronica Burton and her ability pressure a defense with drives. She’s a master at getting her shoulder past an opponent in man-to-man defense and then getting to the rim where she can finish crafty layups, draw shooting fouls and distribute after forcing rotations from the help defense.

UCF sat back in a zone with its tall back line patrolling the paint, cutting off Burton’s drives and strangling the skeleton key to NU’s attack in the process.

Burton usually takes off within the restricted circle for her at-rim finishes, but with the UCF bigs already positioned above that semi-circle and not recovering from a distance to contest her, Burton takes off from around 10 feet away for a floater that gets swatted easily by Destiny Thomas. The Knights were all but putting trees around the hoop, and for 20 minutes the Wildcats’ sole answer was for Pulliam to shoot the basketball over them from a safe distance.

That’s why Joe McKeown, Kate Popovec and co. came out with some delightful adjustments in the second half of play to crack their adversary's stingy zone.

This play doesn’t seem like much on the surface, and it results in the same thank-goodness-we-have-Lindsey-and-she’s-awesome type shot. But the principle and outline of the design is what’s important. The above play has elements of “Double Drag” where the handler out top receives two staggered ball screens to the same side, but with the screens set at the same time instead of being staggered it also has elements of a “Horns” set. Courtney Shaw and Sydney Wood are the screeners (very intentional strategy using them as they’re the two non-shooters on the floor), and once Wood pops Northwestern is able to swing it around, and this action draws the attention of the opposite side defender in the zone.

Pulliam recognizes this and weaves through the gaps of the now softened zone defense to get the open elbow jumper that she cans with ease.

Four minutes later, Northwestern uncorked a set so beautiful that it should be studied at the University. In the play below, Shaw and Wood casually walk to the top of the key as if they’re going to set the screens in “Horns”, which are typically designed as screens guiding the dribbler to the outside on the side of their choosing. But playing off that accepted tendency is where the oh-so-special sauce comes in.

Shaw and Wood screen the inside of the zone instead of the outside, creating a pathway straight down the middle of the defense as if they were running an inverse “Elevator” set for Burton. It’s bizarre the first time you watch it, because Burton literally waltzes down the direct center of the court unimpeded, and that’s the point. This counter is designed to catch an over tenacious zone sleeping, and I couldn’t help but remember how ESPN’s Zach Lowe pointed out the Dallas Mavericks running this same zone counter last month in a game against the Phoenix Suns.

(For what it’s worth, I once left up a Nikola Jokic zoom background during a postgame presser to which McKeown responded, “Oh I like the Joker,” so him seeing a Mavs game and finding this nasty set is within the realm of possibility).

An added benefit to winning those first two plays is that the defense will now load up on those options that beat them previously, thus opening up tertiary options in the sets. Take this play which again starts with Wood and Northwestern’s center (Paige Mott in this case) meandering toward the arc to set some combo of screens for Jordan Hamilton.

This time it’s regular “Horns” instead of that weird inverse of the play that was shown above. UCF moves its zone defenders higher up the floor to make sure neither Hamilton nor Wood can drive straight through the teeth of their defense in the same way Burton did previously, and the wing defender is paranoid about Pulliam burning her on that same down-and-up cut to the elbow. This movement within the play draws the defense out, giving NU the space it’s wanted all year but hasn’t been able to get with teams disrespecting its three-point shooting, and Mott gets prime real estate inside for the post-up because of it.

And on the very next possession, rinse and repeat Mott and Wood setting up the “Horns” screens. UCF responds by scrunching the floor more after Mott just burned them on the inside, and Hamilton quickly diagnoses the coverage by breaking off the play with a hit-ahead pass to Lauryn Satterwhite in the corner.

There’s a ton of cool and intricate things happening during every play, but on a macro level it’s a simple story. Offense runs a good set that gets it a good shot, defense doesn’t like that and decides to adjust how it’s guarding the offense, and then the offense now goes to the next option in its play and gets another good shot. The key is finding that first answer, and that’s exactly what Northwestern dug up during halftime against UC.

Despite not being as notoriously stingy on defense as the Knights, 2-seed Louisville will present a far greater challenge to the Wildcats in the Round of 32. Northwestern needs to play at the absolute top of its game to pull the upset, but rest assured that whatever answer is needed to give it a chance against the Cardinals, this coaching staff is capable of finding it.