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How Northwestern can upset No. 1 Purdue

Does Northwestern have an answer for Edey?

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Against the Boilermakers on Sunday, Northwestern (17-7, 8-5 B1G) will look for its first ever win against a No. 1-ranked opponent. No. 1 Purdue (23-2, 12-2 B1G) has been a juggernaut all year, losing only to Indiana and Rutgers, two teams Northwestern has played competitive basketball against. Let’s look at three things the ‘Cats must do to pull off the upset.

1. Limit Zach Edey

Edey has been the best player in college basketball all season. The Canadian superstar leads the Big Ten in scoring with 22.1 PPG and rebounding with 13.2 RPG. Even in Purdue’s loss against Indiana, Edey had 33 points and 18 rebounds. He’s simply unstoppable.

Yet limiting him is possible. Rutgers, arguably the most similar team to Northwestern in the Big Ten with its defensive intensity and below-average offense, held Edey to 19 points and 11 rebounds in its win over the Boilermakers. Steve Pikiell’s defense double-teamed Edey in the post and made him uncomfortable down low, playing physical defense to push him off the block. This forced Edey to kick the ball out to shooters, who couldn’t hit enough shots down the stretch to beat the Scarlet Knights.

In the waning moments of the battle between Rutgers and Purdue, look at the job Cliff Omoruyi and Paul Mulcahy do doubling Edey on the low block, forcing Purdue to take a deep three instead.

Although the ‘Cats don’t have a Cliff Omoruyi-type player, Chris Collins should continue emphasize double-teaming the post. Northwestern has done it all season, specifically against Wisconsin, where Northwestern’s defensive game plan revolved around doubling Steven Crowl or Tyler Wahl in the short corner to force Connor Essegian and Chucky Hepburn to shoot from deep. Hepburn struggled late in both games, helping the ‘Cats sweep the season series over the Badgers.

On this play, Matthew Nicholson helps Boo Buie on Tyler Wahl, making Wahl pass the ball out to Essegian. A good closeout from Ty Berry forces Essegian to miss the mark from deep.

Purdue can shoot the rock, but using Robbie Beran or Berry’s reach to help Nicholson and Tydus Verhoeven down low is a must against Edey. Northwestern’s paint defense is one of its best assets, but it’s going to need to come with some extra mustard against the Boilermakers if the ‘Cats want to make Edey less of a factor.

2. Find some semblance of offensive rhythm

When Northwestern puts up a respectable number of points, it’s because the ‘Cats shoot well from deep. Don’t be fooled by NU’s 69-63 win over the Buckeyes on Thursday. Northwestern emerged victorious via good defense and timely shooting. Chase Audige, Brooks Barnhizer and Berry all canned triples in the last eight minutes to lead the Wildcats to victory.

Northwestern’s best performances this season — against Indiana, Illinois and a one-possession loss to Rutgers — were all possible thanks to solid shooting. A combined 37.5% from deep in those three games, Northwestern’s losses against Iowa on Jan. 31 and Michigan on Feb. 2 saw the ‘Cats convert on only 20.5% of their three-point attempts.

In Purdue’s loss to Indiana, both teams shot over 50% from the field, an ability Northwestern doesn’t have on a game-to-game basis.

Even on a two-game win streak, the offense leaves a lot to be desired. Too often, Buie or Audige has the ball five feet behind the arc with eight seconds left on the shot clock.

Although the ‘Cats looked better at times against the Buckeyes, plays like this where too much individual play overtakes the offense hampers Northwestern.

Instead, Northwestern needs to attack the basket. Buie is at his best when he’s moving downhill, creating opportunities at the rim, looking for Nicholson inside or a potential kick out to a waiting Wildcat in the corner. Although it’ll be hard to score on Edey’s 7-foot-4 frame manning the middle, the best way to create open shots from behind the arc is to force the defense to adjust to good ball movement. Dribbling the ball at the logo for 15 seconds doesn’t count as moving the basketball.

The ‘Cats have struggled with shooting all season, but better penetration off the dribble and passing to set up good shots is the answer to the NU’s woes. That’s how Berry, Barnhizer and Beran get open looks from three, and for the Wildcats, hopefully catch fire from deep.

3. Watch for Purdue’s freshman guards

In the shadow of Zach Edey’s success, Purdue’s two freshman guards — Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith — have had excellent starts to their collegiate careers. Shutting down Edey is priority number one for Northwestern’s defense, but Loyer and Smith are two guys that NU can’t slack off on.

Loyer, a 6-foot-4 guard from Fort Wayne, Indiana, is second on the Boilermakers in scoring, averaging 12.6 PPG off 34.7% three-point shooting. Loyer has range and isn’t scared to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket. A talented scorer with underrated athleticism, Loyer is coming off a 17-point outing against Iowa.

Smith, a 6-foot guard from Westfield, Indiana, scored a career-high 24 points against the Hawkeyes off 8-for-10 shooting and a torrid 4-for-5 from downtown. A 42.3% three-point shooter, Smith can get hot in a hurry from out behind the arc. Third on the team with 9.9 PPG, Smith’s quickness allows him to dribble past his opponents, and his great court vision helps get his teammates involved.

As Purdue’s primary ball handler, Smith’s ability to accelerate makes him difficult to stay in front of. On this play here, look at how fast he gets past his defender on the way to the basket, something Northwestern’s guards are going to have to zone in on.

With Northwestern’s focus on stopping Edey, the ‘Cats can’t forget about Loyer and Smith. The two freshman guards are too lethal from deep to be left alone. Knowing where Loyer and Smith are on the court, making them uncomfortable from behind the arc with heavy on-ball defense and running the duo off the three-point line is essential to slowing down the Big Ten’s best team.

Quick closeouts and an emphasis on strong man defense is something Northwestern has been excellent at all year and is crucial to the squad’s defensive effort on Sunday. For Chris Collins, it’s a game of pick your poison between Edey dropping 30 points or Loyer and Smith shooting the lights out from deep.

But to beat the Boilermakers on Sunday, Northwestern has to stop both from happening.