The Northwestern men’s basketball program got the biggest win in its history Sunday, and no, that isn’t an exaggeration.
For the first time in their history, Northwestern beat the No. 1 team in America in the Purdue Boilermakers as the season continues to become more surreal. Many picked Northwestern to finish last in the Big Ten, and now, they are tied second in the conference with a record of 9-5.
Before looking ahead to Wednesday’s big matchup against the No. 14 Indiana Hoosiers in Evanston, let’s take a moment and really take in the Purdue win. How did the ‘Cats do it?
Well, it was a combination of Northwestern’s stars stepping up and the staff coaching their best game of the season.
Let’s start with how they dealt with the leading candidate for National Player of the Year in Zach Edey.
There’s no doubt that Edey is a menace on both sides of the floor. Standing at 7-foot-4, he is almost impossible to guard on the offensive end, and though Edey had a good stat-line, Chris Collins drew up a better gameplan that paid off in crucial moments.
Usually against elite bigs this season, the Wildcats have opted to double them when they get the ball inside the arc and their back is faced away from the basket. This technique worked well against Wisconsin’s Steven Crowl and Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson in Ann Arbor, but Chris Collin’s squad quickly learned it would be harder against Edey.
The first possession of the game showed this, with Edey bringing in the double from Matthew Nicholson and Robbie Beran, and he quickly dished it to Caleb Furst for the dunk.
While they struggled with Edey during the first half, Northwestern was able to use a similar defensive strategy when other players got to the paint, and it later resulted at turnovers. In the clip below, backup center Trey Kaufmann-Ren had Purdue’s first turnover of the game.
Here, the similar double-the-big strategy worked out. Kaufman-Renn felt the pressure of two Northwestern players and it resulted in a turnover.
But, back to Edey. Northwestern started to figure him out. First, it was to match him with pure size, which is why Matthew Nicholson was guarding him for most of the game. The first Edey-related turnover came with less than two minutes left in the first half.
Mason Gillis tries forcing the ball into Edey, but Nicholson gets his hand on it and it worked. Edey had a harder time as the game went on. This was seen in half two.
Early into the second half, Northwestern brought the staff’s adjustments to work. Here, we see Edey get the ball in the paint and get met with a double team from Beran and Nicholson. The difference here is that Boo Buie came down and occupied Furst in the paint.
What happens here? Edey had no option to dish it off in the paint, and he made a bad pass while attempting to pass out to the perimeter, resulting in a turnover.
This same defense caused Edey to turn the ball over four minutes later. This time, Brooks Barnhizer and Tydus Verhoeven meet Edey, and Ty Berry goes and catches Braden Smith cutting towards the basket.
Chris Collins started to see a successful plan to Edey, and while he got his shots, there were plenty of times when the Wildcats succeeded. This included in the crucial moments.
For example, with less than two and a half minutes remaining and the score being 57-56 along with Northwestern having all the momentum, the double team on Edey resulted in a turnover.
Nicholson and Barnhizer swarmed Edey and caused him to lose the ball, and on the following possession, the ‘Cats took the lead.
This is not the last time Northwestern produced a crucial turnover from Edey. With 40 seconds left in the game and the Wildcats up two, Collins’ same strategy worked once more.
Once more, Nicholson and Barnhizer double teamed Edey, and he threw it to Boo Buie, who was occupying the closest man in Brandon Newman. Then, Ty Berry found Brooks Barnhizer, essentially putting the game out of reach for the Boilermakers.
Yes, Purdue has other good offensive threats, such as Fletcher Loyer, Braden Smith and Mason Gillis to name a few, but in order to beat the top team in the country, a team needs to contain their best player. Though Edey got his stat-line, the Wildcats’ defensive plan worked for most of the second half, and it resulted in the win.
Edey is not only a monster on the offensive side of the floor. On defense, he takes up the entire paint. So what did Northwestern do on offense? They went right at him.
Edey’s at his worst when the opposition takes him out of the paint, and Audige and Nicholson did this on the first possession of the game. Nicholson gets the ball at the top of the arc and hands it to Audige, who creates separation off Ethan Morton, and the senior gives it right back to Nicholson with Edey out of position for the first score of the game.
Northwestern goes back to this shortly after, with this time Buie being the distributor.
Nicholson does the same thing, taking Edey out of the paint to set Buie a screen, then with Edey coming back into the purple, Buie finds Nicholson for the easy alley-oop.
Another way to beat Edey in the paint is to drive by him and be creative in the paint, and while this is a bit harder, the Northwestern guards found success as time went on. There are two plays in the second half that show Buie driving on the center in a similar way, but his finishing aspects are different.
In the clip above, Buie drives right at Edey a minute into the second half, and he is met with a block. The bottom line is, it’s hard to drive at Edey. But, look at how the senior guard changes his approach after.
Now in crunch time, instead of going straight up, Buie baits Edey in with his speed. Once he is past Edey, he has the awareness to know that one of the tallest players in college basketball is chasing him; so, he goes under, making it hard for Edey to contest, and it goes for two for the Wildcats.
Then, it became the Chase Audige Show.
In Chris Collins’ postgame presser, he called the following clip the turning point in the game. After getting Ty Berry an open look, the Wildcats’ showed what they have all year: incredible effort.
Here, it was Boo Buie, who was able to grab the offensive rebound over Loyer and he quickly got it to Audige, who hit the three and got the Wildcats within five. Then, shortly after, everyone knew the ‘Cats were coming.
Audige showed why he is a candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, getting a steal on Loyer and quickly dunking it. Northwestern was within three.
Though Purdue scored coming out of the timeout, guess who hit a shot shortly after?
If you guessed Audige, of course you were right. This time, he rattles in a mid-range shot, which has become one of his specialties this year.
The next two points that got Northwestern within one came from Brooks Barnhizer free throws, and after an aforementioned Edey turnover, Northwestern had the chance to take the lead. That’s exactly what they did, courtesy of Audige.
Buie was stopped on the drive, meeting the all-familiar Edey, but was able to find Audige in the left corner. The senior drove and finds Barnhizer, looped around him, and Barnhizer quickly gave it back Audige again, and he hit one of the biggest shots in Northwestern history.
Northwestern might have not been the best offensive team throughout the game, but they showed up when it mattered. The last four minutes, when Northwestern surged, were a coaching and player masterclass.
Again, this was a season, career and program defining win for the Wildcats, and a lot of that has to be attributed to Chris Collins and his staff. There was not an upset face in Evanston yesterday, besides Boilermaker fans.