Finally! The Northwestern Wildcats are ranked 21st in the AP Poll.
After weeks of knocking on the door, the Wildcats finally broke the top 25 after one of the best weeks in the program’s history, knocking off No. 1 Purdue, No. 14 Indiana and Iowa. Additionally, they’re not done yet.
Though Northwestern beat two ranked teams in the past week and a half, you can argue that the Iowa win had the same amount of importance behind it. Before Sunday evening, the ‘Cats had a nine-game losing streak against the Hawkeyes, including a 112-76 blowout in the Big Ten Tournament last year, which partially contributed to Northwestern having little optimism going into this season.
But, Northwestern proved everybody wrong. Now with a record of 20-7 and a probable lock for March Madness, let’s dive into the team’s performance against Iowa, as it was one of their best of the year.
Starting with the offense, Northwestern was able to create shots constantly and many of their baskets came assisted.
Every team Northwestern plays should know Boo Buie and Chase Audige are its two best players, and even without the ball, they cause a distraction for the opposing defense. Look at the first play of the game:
After Audige gives the ball to Robbie Beran, he and Buie are constantly moving, and Iowa’s defense moves with them. Beran also cuts right to the basket immediately after giving the ball to Matthew Nicholson. Simultaneously, Nicholson finds Ty Berry while Buie catches Kris Murray (who was guarding Beran) and Ahron Ulis, allowing Beran to cut to the basket and have an easy layup.
The movement is clear, and on the next possession, all eyes are on one of Northwestern’s stars in Audige. The second he gets the ball, all eyes shift towards him, and Iowa’s defense clusters as he drives.
But, the difference between here and the first matchup is Ty Berry, who finds a pocket of space in the corner and drains a three. Iowa forgot about the guard and arguably Northwestern’s three-point shooter.
One of the biggest differences between Sunday’s matchup and Jan. 31 in Iowa City was Northwestern’s three-point shooting. When the teams last met, the Wildcats went 4-of-17 from beyond the arc, and to start this game, they went 4-of-7. A lot of this production started from inside.
Here, focus is on Matthew Nicholson as he catches a long pass from Buie. This draws the attention of both Filip Rebraca and Connor McCaffery. Nicholson has the vision to see Audige wide open, and Audige makes the Hawkeyes pay.
Then, Northwestern gets back to its identity: defense, and it creates good offense. Rebraca gave the Wildcats trouble in Iowa City, especially early on. In the following clip, look how the Wildcats condense once the center gets the ball.
This includes Ty Berry, who steps in the passing lane, and the ‘Cats break out. Buie finds Audige, who sets up Berry. Berry hit a three already in the game, and Iowa’s Tony Perkins jumps on a pump fake. Now that the Hawkeyes are discombobulated, Berry finds an open Buie, stretching the Wildcat lead to eight early on.
Northwestern’s next score was also a three, and it featured Berry again. Once he passes the ball, he immediately moves, and even after colliding with Brooks Barnhizer, he finds his spot in the corner.
Audige’s drive collapses the Iowa defense again, and now Berry has an open three and hits it.
Northwestern continued to thrive off of assisted baskets throughout the first half. In fact, in the game, over half of their made field goals (27) came from assists (15). The following play again uses Buie’s speed to gather the attention of an Iowa double team, and Tydus Verhoeven cuts towards the net for an easy two.
The above clip, along with others, shows that Buie and also Audige, are able to distribute when they have all eyes on them. This allows Northwestern’s secondary production to get involved, and this makes NU a better basketball team.
Even on misses, the gameplan was clear: have Buie or Audige draw attention and someone will be open. Here, it’s Nick Martinelli.
Yes, he missed, but the idea is the same. Buie drew all sorts of attention leaving Martinelli open. Though the first-year did not score, Chris Collins should be happy with the play.
The following clip might be the best possession of the game, maybe even of Northwestern’s season when it comes to its offense. It starts with the common theme of Buie using his speed to draw the attention of Payton Sandfort and Connor McCaffery.
What happens next? Buie to Beran to Berry to Barnhizer and bang! The ball movement is impeccable, and it shows how effective Northwestern was on offense on Sunday. Then, the next possession, and we all knew this: Boo Buie can score on his own.
There is not much to say here besides the senior guard took the game into his own hands to put Northwestern up 14. The team’s strong first half essentially put the game out of reach for Iowa, who is a completely different team on the road than at home. But one more thing to note offensively, and that is when Buie isn’t the star for Northwestern, it’s likely Audige is.
The first possession of the second half shows this. It was all Audige.
Audige recognizes a mismatch with Rebraca on him and also sees the broken play, and he takes advantage. The guard drives by the Iowa big man and cans a difficult layup. Yes, he can make difficult shots from all over, and the next clip is pretty much the same.
The only difference here is Audige noticing Murray in the paint, and so he opts for a reverse layup. Same result here, a bucket.
Northwestern had seven assisted baskets in the first half and relied on the star power of Buie and Audige to put the game out of reach for the Hawkeyes. Furthermore, Northwestern has the secondary production to compete with any team.
The Wildcats were also stout defensively, and this is not a surprise: this has been the team’s identity all year, and the latest feat was holding the Big Ten’s top offense to 60 points in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Two of Iowa’s best offensive traits this year are playing through Murray, one of the top scorers in the country averaging 20.7 PPG, and the team’s ability to shoot threes. The former is always a threat, and the latter destroyed the ‘Cats the first time the teams met this year. Northwestern defended both differently.
Northwestern silenced Iowa’s three-point shooting in the first half, and the Hawkeyes went 2-of-17 from deep. A lot of this was because of Northwestern crashing the arc. Here’s Murray, who can shoot from anywhere, take a contested three.
What’s the difference here? Brooks Barnhizer and his closeout defense. He’s in Murray’s face when the forward is in motion, and it results in a missed Iowa three.
Collins wanted Northwestern to breathe up Iowa’s necks when it shot from three. In the clip below, the ‘Cats did so on Sandfort, who terrorized the Wildcats in Iowa City.
Sandfort misses, and this can be attributed to Buie, who stays with Sandfort through the entire possession and his ability to get a hand up. The Iowa wing only had one three in the first half. Buie’s active hands on defense can be seen again on Sandfort.
This was a major difference this time around, as Sandfort was almost nowhere to be found in the first half. He had only five points, and the Northwestern defense helped them grow a lead throughout half one.
Iowa is more than a three point shooting team, and a lot of this starts with Murray. The twin brother of Keegan Murray has the ability to drive and is hard to stop. The following clip, while short, shows this.
Murray got the ball at the top of the paint (not pictured), and drove, and was met with Matthew Nicholson, who made it difficult for Murray to get up the shot. Northwestern always had someone, or two, in the paint when Murray drove. This can also be seen in the second half.
This time, it’s Nicholson and Beran who double Murray. The Iowa star realizes he has no option to shoot with Northwestern’s two tallest players guarding him, and he opts to pass to Rebraca. But, Chase Audige is there.
This leads us to the last point: Northwestern was constantly getting in passing lanes and Iowa would turn the ball over. Look at Buie on Sandfort below.
Northwestern’s senior guard not only follows Sandfort along the arc, but when Sandfort cuts. Buie does not lose him and steps in the passing lane and gets a hand on the ball, resulting in an Iowa turnover. Tydus Verhoeven also steps in a passing lane, this time with Rebraca as the target.
The common theme is the hard work on defense leading to turnovers. In the next clip, Ty Berry solely putting his hands up on defense results in a Hawkeyes giveaway.
Iowa was trying to set up a play through Murray, but Berry stopped it.
Northwestern had strong offense, but also relied on its defensive identity to put up one of its most complete performances of the season. It helped snap a nine-game skid against the Hawkeyes and stifle one of the country’s top offenses while also winning by 20.
If they play like this on both sides of the floor, Northwestern will continue to be a tough out come March.