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Three takeaways from Northwestern men’s basketball’s successful jaunt in the desert

The ‘Cats rode a dominant defensive performance to beat Arizona State 65-46 in Phoenix.

This was a completely different Northwestern side than the one that lost to Chicago State a week ago. Chris Collins’ bunch imposed its will against a thoroughly outmatched Arizona State squad on both sides of the ball in NU’s first real test since the disaster-class last Wednesday. Northwestern outscored the Sun Devils 36-13 in the first half and never really looked in danger of giving this one away. Here are three takeaways from the win.

The defense looks like it’s coming together

Much of Northwestern’s success last season can be attributed to its hounding perimeter defense, but with Chase Audige’s departure, this year’s unit has looked less than stellar at times. The rotations have often been sloppy, leading to a lot of open looks from three, and Northwestern has consistently struggled to defend quick guards. Chicago State’s Wesley Cardet Jr. coasted to a season-high 30 points on 62% shooting in the Cougars’ upset victory, and the Wildcats had no answer for Mississippi State’s Josh Hubbard in their November loss to the Bulldogs.

Arizona State runs its offense almost exclusively through quick guards like Cardet Jr. and Hubbard. Its two leading scorers — Frankie Collins and the former Illini Adam Miler — are both guards under 6-foot-3 who don’t shoot very well from three and make their living getting to the rim.

Yet the ASU offense looked anemic on Wednesday. The Sun Devils struggled to generate open looks on offense, and Miller and Collins combined to shoot 6-for-26. Northwestern’s rotations looked sharp, and its guards played with an energy that has been missing for stretches of this season.

Since Northwestern allowed 75 points to Chicago State and KenPom’s 329th-rated offense, the ‘Cats have held their opponents to just 46 points in back-to-back games. It’s just two games, and Northwestern faces vastly more potent offenses in their future, but it does appear that the Chicago State loss has reignited the ‘Cats’ defensive fire.

Conference play will be a lot more fun if the guards continue to rebound like they did yesterday

Rebounding has also been an issue for the ‘Cats early in the season. DePaul and Chicago State — two teams that have been statistically poor on the glass — both out-rebounded Northwestern last week, and even in the win against Purdue, Northwestern was outgained 52-27.

The ‘Cats have been running a relatively small lineup this year, with Matthew Nicholson often playing as the only big man. Yet Northwestern’s resident 7-footer only averages a measly 3.5 rebounds a game.

But on Wednesday, the ‘Cats out-rebounded Arizona State 41-32, much due to the efforts of their four guards. Ty Berry led Northwestern’s strong rebounding evening, grabbing a season-high 10 boards, and Brooks Barnhizer secured nine of his own. Even Boo Buie and Ryan Langborg had a strong showing on the glass, combining for 11 more rebounds between the two of them.

Arizona State boasts a similarly negative rebounding profile to the ‘Cats, and the Sun Devils have been out-rebounded in all but two of their games so far this season, but this performance still bodes well for the ‘Cats. If Northwestern’s core four can continue to be strong on the glass and help remedy some of the team’s early season rebounding issues, the ‘Cats will be a force to be reckoned with in Big Ten play.

Nicholson’s early season struggles are alarming

There were a lot of positives from Wednesday’s victory, but Nicholson was borderline invisible against Arizona State. In a game where he was the tallest player on the court by a good three inches, the center only managed a measly two points and three rebounds in 19 minutes. Big Matt was still relatively effective on the defensive end — his size gave the Sun Devils fits in the paint — but his lack of offensive production and seeming inability to rebound continue to be alarming, especially for an otherwise undersized Northwestern lineup.

Nicholson, who was big for the ‘Cats down the stretch last season, has noticeably regressed in both his scoring and rebounding numbers, dropping by two from a season ago in both categories. His defense remains important, but the ‘Cats will no doubt need more from their big man against more physical Big Ten opponents.