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Three takeaways from Northwestern’s split at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament

Some good, some bad.

NCAA Basketball: Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Championship Mark Smith-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time this season, Northwestern men’s basketball headed out on the road. For what seems like the millionth time already in just two weeks of action, it came out of games with mixed results. A Saturday win over Rhode Island and a nine-point defeat to Mississippi State the following afternoon certainly had their highs and lows. Here are a few:

Northwestern is capable of starting lightning-fast

22-2 and 17-6. Those were the leads Northwestern held at the 9:45 mark of the first half in each of their clashes this weekend. NU’s defense on Rhode Island was so stifling in the early going that it held the Rams to an almost unfathomable 1-of-18 start from the field. Against Mississippi State, the ‘Cats forced seven turnovers in the first 10 minutes. In both contests, most of Northwestern’s scoring didn’t just come from one hot hand. It came from a balanced combination of Ryan Langborg, Ty Berry and Boo Buie.

After alarmingly-slow starts against Binghamton and Western Michigan, this was a welcome sight. Against both a superior opponent and an underdog in a neutral setting, NU proved it could set the tone and dictate the pace of the game from the beginning. Doing that against the Bulldogs, which now sit at No. 17 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin, is especially encouraging. It propelled the ‘Cats to their first win of the weekend, and put them in great position to go toe-to-toe with an Mississippi State squad that should be their most challenging test of the non-conference slate.

That won’t matter if the perimeter defense struggles like it did

Fair warning: a long one.

Chris Collins has said repeatedly that winning the turnover battle and staying below 10 giveaways is a program staple. Northwestern had a +9 turnover margin this weekend and hovered around that 10-giveaway threshold (11 against URI, nine against MSU), but its defense couldn’t capitalize on those dominant starts mentioned above.

Why? It was largely due to issues in an area that served as a primary source of success last season: defending the perimeter. These problems have persisted throughout the first five games of the 2023-24 campaign, as Northwestern has allowed its opponents to shoot 38.4% from three-point land.

Rhode Island’s guards, particularly Zek Montgomery and Cam Estevez, were the catalysts behind a few runs that brought their team to within four points of NU before the first half even ended. The Rams shot 42% from three-point land on the day, and frequently got to the free throw line by attacking the rim. Their top four guards/wings — Montgomery, Estevez, Jaden House and Luis Kortright — earned 19 of URI’s 22 attempts from the charity stripe. For NU, if you subtract Brooks Barnhizer’s eight attempts, six of which came on intentional fouls or offensive rebounds, the guards earned just four. A bunch of those Rhode Island buckets came on defensive breakdowns, which is something that Northwestern prides itself on avoiding.

It got worse the following day. Mississippi State freshman Josh Hubbard erupted against the ‘Cats, pouring in 29 points and four threes. It was apparent that Northwestern, which hadn’t had fewer than three days of rest between games before enduring this back-to-back, faded defensively late in the second half. The aggressiveness that has come to define NU on that end of the floor was sporadic, and it led to a number of easy looks.

This sequence was rough:

As usual, Nicholson hard-hedges, but Berry recovers after the catch and drive from D.J. Jeffries. Northwestern gets its trademark post trap with Langborg and Berry. But, if you pause at that eight-second mark in the clip, you can see that Buie and Barnhizer don’t have active hands.

They’re in position to cut off the only two feasible passes Jeffries can make, and should be inclined to deny those lanes given the amount of clutter in the post already. However, neither player responds until Jeffries turns outward. At that point, Barnhizer had already lost Dashawn Davis, who drained the three-pointer.

And eventually, because Hubbard and Co. got so hot from deep, NU doubled down on its over-aggressiveness. That, as well as fatigue, may have contributed to sequences like the one that gave the Bulldogs the lead for good:

Jimmy Bell Jr. slips the first screen, and then staggers Barnhizer. In the process, Nicholson comes up and goes past the three-point line for a split second. So did Berry, though, because Northwestern needed to smother a scalding-hot Hubbard. Compare that to the first pick for Davis in the last clip, when Barnhizer fluidly went underneath while Nicholson blitzed. In this case, that extra step on the hard hedge along with Berry’s pressure gave Bell an extra step on Northwestern’s big man, even though he recovered well.

On Bell’s ensuing down screen, Barnhizer strives to deny Cameron Matthews the ball by going over the top. But due to Nicholson’s positioning, he can’t afford to surrender the baseline. Barnhizer hesitates and overcommits, Bell bullies Nicholson out of the lane with a terrific seal and Matthews has an easy layup.

Hubbard was on fire, but Matthews still has not made a single three this season. Admittedly, I don’t know enough about Northwestern’s defensive intricacies to determine whether Nicholson and Barnhizer correctly filled their schematic roles here and something else went wrong, but this looks like an instance in which the fear of an open jumper lingered in the back of everyone’s minds. Yet, in the second half of a grueling back-to-back against a team that should move into the AP Top 25, over-aggressiveness is rarely the best answer to that problem.

Whether I’m right or wrong here, giving up 39 second-half points isn’t ideal. Northwestern has played at a slower offensive tempo than all but eight teams in the nation thus far, and can’t win like that.

A four-headed dragon has its benefits... and consequences

It’s become pretty clear that Buie, Barnhizer, Langborg and Berry are each integral parts of Northwestern’s offense. The first two tend to create their own shot, while the latter pair has gotten a high volume of catch-and-shoot looks. Whether that holds true come January remains to be seen, but Northwestern primarily operated through that quartet this weekend. It combined for 97 of NU’s 123 field goal attempts in the tournament, and launched 51 of 61 shots against Mississippi State.

The balanced attack paid off handsomely against Rhode Island. Barnhizer and Berry earned most of the first-half looks. As a bonus, Blake Preston added six points and six offensive rebounds (yes, you read that correctly) in the opening period. That opened up the floor for Buie in the second half, who constantly kept Northwestern’s lead at double-digits with response after response. All four players combined for 56 points on the day.

Against the Bulldogs, it was tougher sledding. Northwestern depended on its perimeter offense against KenPom’s No. 3 defense in the country, and multiple players went cold. Buie went just 4-of-14 from the field, while Langborg made only one of seven three-point attempts. For the four perimeter players to thrive off each other, consistently attacking the paint and attracting significant defensive attention are musts to generate open looks. Buie can do that, and Barnhizer’s post arsenal may solve that problem, but the quartet can’t overly rely on the three-ball.