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Even in a loss, Northwestern might have found its best lineup against Michigan

Confronted with foul trouble on the road, Northwestern went small and started scoring at will.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It feels weird, doesn’t it?

Northwestern lost, but no one is too mad. It was another close-margin defeat, another loss where victory seemed well within reach, another trip to Ann Arbor where the ‘Cats didn’t return to Evanston with a W, and yet the vibes around this Northwestern men’s basketball season are... quite good?

Part of that is the nature of exceeding expectations. Some (including myself, an idiot) were projecting a near winless season in conference play and almost certainly the end of the Collins era. Instead, roughly a third of the way through B1G play, Northwestern has road wins over Indiana and Michigan State, its first win over Illinois in four years and a suffocating defense that ranks well in just about every metric. An 85-78 road loss to a talented (albeit inconsistent) Michigan squad is far from the worst loss a Wildcat fan has seen on the basketball court over the years.

And ultimately, the main reason Northwestern loss is bittersweet — it found its best lineup, but then didn’t play it quite enough to hang on for the win.

The quintet of Boo Buie, Chase Audige, Ty Berry, Brooks Barnhizer and Robbie Beran had not even shared the court for more than a single minute throughout Big Ten play entering Sunday’s game, only to be the spark behind Northwestern’s 27-10 run in the first half, and its lone glimmer of hope in the second.

Despite playing great defense for most of the year, the ‘Cats’ ball-screen coverage is a bit rigid and predictable. Neither Matt Nicholson nor Tydus Verhoeven has the foot speed to hang on a switch, and playing a deep drop consistently overtaxes one’s guards and lacks the aggressive mindset most coaches want to instill on defense. Thus, Northwestern has relied on two main types of coverage throughout the season — having the big either hard hedge or show at the level.

The principles aren’t immutable to my knowledge, but there are definite trends. Screens where the ball handler is turning toward the middle are often met with a hard hedge, where the big lunges out in order to slow the ball handler down and hopefully buy himself time to recover back to the short roll, as you can see in the clip below.

Northwestern even had Beran hard hedging while playing at the four position early in the second half, as you can see on this possession where they get two hard hedges against screens that threaten a drive to the middle for the opponent.

Northwestern forces a turnover here on a pretty iffy charge call, but even then, you can see the danger in playing with the big so aggressively above the screen. Not every rolling big is Draymond Green dissecting 4-on-3’s, but conceding a numbers advantage is never great.

On the other hand, whenever a ball handler threatens to turn toward the baseline coming off the on-ball screen, you’ll more often see the NU bigs showing at the level or playing a modified drop defense that nears the pick’s level.

Does that play look familiar? That’s because it’s essentially the same concept Rutgers ran on its game-winning play against NU, and one that I broke down in a video on Twitter last week, showing how no single Northwestern defender was really to blame for the breakdown, but rather, how the Scarlet Knights exploited the ‘Cats’ at-the-level defense to generate a three for Cam Spencer.

Rutgers spaced its floor better, while Verhoeven did a better job than Nicholson in not overextending his coverage on a meh shooter, but both plays clear out the weak side and lift the shooter stashed on that end to put the tagging defender (Audige in both cases) in a tough situation.

It’s not a personal failing of Nicholson or Verhoeven, but the options at play are simply limited when one of them defends a ball screen.

Enter Robbie Beran at the center position.

While not the mythical one-through-five position defender with nary a weakness in sight, Beran is capable of switching onto smaller guards and containing at the point of attack, while also being able to perform the basic schematic coverages that the other two bigs already operate in with regularity.

It’s not even about defensive skill more than it is in variability. Switching one-through-five is another bow in the quiver for Northwestern whenever it plays big Beran at the five.

Now given, Northwestern mainly had Beran remain in coverages akin to its usual tik, and Beran performed quite well in those. He’s fast enough in hard hedges to recover well before ceding an advantage, and savvy enough when playing near the level and choose correctly in the cat and mouse game that is pick and roll defense.

Beran’s speed and versatility opens up the ‘Cats’ options on defense, though that might be harder for the casual viewer to notice on first glance. What isn’t hard to intuit is what starting the redshirt senior at center does for Northwestern’s offense, as the slow and somewhat clogged unit turned into a free flowing one with ample space during the lineup’s usage yesterday.

Just look at how easy this drive becomes for Beran as the Wolverines refuse to help off of any of Northwestern’s perimeter players.

Per CBB Analytics, the Wildcats spent 11 minutes on the hardwood yesterday with Robbie Beran at center while Nicholson and Verhoeven rested on the bench. Northwestern won those minutes at a whopping rate of +38.6 points per 100 possessions.

That’s a very small sample, but it’s glaring how even in a game that Northwestern lost by seven and trailed in by double digits late, its best lineup still absolutely dominated when it was on the court. The small-ball unit ran into just a few problems in the second half as Michigan supersized by putting both Hunter Dickinson and Tarris Reed Jr. on the court at the same time, opting to harass the Wildcats on the glass for second chances on offense, but that just proves the same thing for this lineup that’s true of every lineup — you can’t play it 40 minutes a night without changing.

Heck, I’m not even demanding that Collins drops everything, benches his two traditional centers and tries to spin the 2016 Warriors revolution on the traditionally old-fashioned Big Ten. But if this is Northwestern’s best, most versatile and unpredictable unit, then it needs to become their crunch-time five, capable of scoring with a spread floor and switching screens between every position whenever the game gets close.

Northwestern fans have begun to drink the kool-aid of March Madness soon, and though yesterday’s defeat in Ann Arbor was a significant setback for those ambitions, the Wildcats found something in Robbie Beran that might turns those dreams into reality once more.