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Northwestern’s offense needs to find an identity somewhere (and soon)

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Despite a solid defensive showing, NU was cost a real chance at a major upset due to a lack of purpose on offense.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

If I really wanted to, I could write the same exact story that I cooked up the last time Northwestern lost to the Purdue Boilermakers. If I did, I’d say something like “Purdue is an amazing team, you should expect NU to lose this game, the bigger problem is that they lost the more winnable games earlier this season, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars,” and go to sleep at a reasonable hour so I don’t fall asleep during my Econ classes.

But no, there’s a bigger story to be told. Purdue has the best adjusted offensive efficiency in the country per KenPom, yet Matt Painter’s team was held to 70 points on a middling 56.2 TS%, as Northwestern’s defense performed about as well as anyone could have asked. Sure, timely threes from Mason Gillis killed the ‘Cats in the second half, but that’s the tradeoff Purdue forces everyone into with the 7-foot-4 Zach Edey pulverizing all one-on-one coverage in the paint. Keeping this in mind, it’s more than fair to say that NU’s defense was quite good on Wednesday night.

The offense, however, was a different story. Despite having a plethora of intimidating figures awaiting opponents at the rim, the Boilermakers are far from a great defensive unit, ranking a mere 101st in adjusted defensive efficiency. Yet Northwestern’s offense fell completely flat, scoring only 64 points and shooting a brutal 8-for-28 from behind the three point line.

“I thought we had our chances when the game was in the balance, and if we make a few of those, maybe it’s a different story,” said Collins, who pinned the loss more on a poor shooting performance than the execution of his team. “I like how we’re playing, we’ve just got to shoot the ball a little better.”

On the surface, this is perfectly true. Northwestern had decent looks from three all night, and shooting variance quite often can explain the difference in the outcome of a closely contested game. But to deduce everything down to “make or miss” feels unsatisfying, especially when Northwestern’s opponents seemingly escape this pattern.

The difference is in the foundations. Teams like Purdue have key principles and ideas that they can fall back on at any time, while Northwestern almost needs everything to click at the right time just to have a chance.

All of Purdue’s offense is based around either a) post-ups with Edey and Trevion Williams and spreading the floor around them, or b) getting Jaden Ivey the ball on the move so he can attack against a tilted floor. No matter how any of the tertiary pieces on the team are playing, the Boilermakers anchor themselves in those concepts and can work from there.

What would you say is Northwestern’s offensive identity? Is it high ball screens with a spread floor for Boo Buie? Is is the oft-occurring dribble hand-offs that Pete Nance orchestrates from the slot as a high-post passing hub? Does Ryan Young play a large enough role off the bench that his post-up prowess could be considered a key to Northwestern’s offensive identity?

The correct answer to that first question is “not really”, because the answer to the three following it are “I don’t know, you tell me.”

This doesn’t mean that the offense is inherently bad. Heck, Painter praised Collins’ sets in his postgame presser, saying that, “Northwestern runs a lot of good stuff, and Chris does a good job of forcing you to be on top of your game defensively.” That’s all well and good, but it’s no replacement for an identity.

Whether it be a failure on the recruiting trail due to not bringing in players talented enough to warrant self-creating offense or on the developmental staff for not turning any of Northwestern’s current core into a player of that mold, the ‘Cats have fallen short in creating a backbone to their offense. The result is a lot of frustrating possessions that are characterized by sequences of Northwestern players moving the ball around the perimeter without ever creating any dent in the defense, being forced to take a tough shot and praying that they’re falling that night.

This deficiency shows up most plainly in Northwestern’s miniscule attempts of shots at the rim and from the free throw line. Free throws are a great indicator of how in control a team’s offense is. It’s a constant source of easy points that’s derived through effective drives and players who know what they need to do in order to earn those free throws that release pressure off of the halfcourt offense.

As I detailed over a year ago, this has been a constant struggle for the ‘Cats under Collins’ tutelage. Just check out this graph from cbbanalytics.com and you’ll see that it’s been more of the same in 2022.

Northwestern does not get to the foul line very much, while all of its opponents do. People can cry wolf about officiating all day long, but the real killer is that other teams know what they do best and constantly pressure the defense with it, forcing refs to reward them with free throws. Northwestern is an amalgamation of good-in-virtue “Horns” and “Chicago” sets that occasionally get rolling, but never feel like sure money in the bank.

Even in a game such as last night’s in which NU garnered 16 free throw attempts, they still felt like a scattered assortment of positive plays that didn’t connect with one another, whereas Purdue’s methodical post-up and kick out strategy gave the Boilermakers assurance that they could pull away at any moment.

“There’s no question, I wasn’t pleased with the offensive output [tonight],” Collins said postgame. “I’ll watch the film, as well as the staff, and we’ll try to put together a better gameplan for Saturday so we can function better on that end.”

There’s definitely a chance we see a better offensive outing from Northwestern come this weekend against Minnesota, but I doubt that the stabilizing identity the unit needs will get crafted before then.