One way to knock a rhythm team off its offense and off its, well, rhythm is to knock them to the ground and play physical. Bumping cutters, blitzing ball handlers and fouling are these trademarks, and they can wreak havoc on a team that is unable to grind its way through them.
The Wildcats having that perfect duo of finesse, movement-based offense and young players may not have quite been prepared for the physical battle the Bulldogs were prepared to unleash on them Saturday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Butler had the clear goal of frustrating and throwing NU off its game with this physical brand of defense. It did not matter how many fouls some guys got — foul trouble probably kept the game close — an experienced team like Butler knew that a Northwestern team that was struggling to get and make shots could not win.
If this was indeed Butler’s plan Saturday it worked in a 74-65 win against Northwestern on Saturday, playing a much more dominant game than the final score indicated. The Bulldogs withstood foul trouble to Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith, their top two players, and bogged the game down. Contesting shots, fighting for every rebound in the paint and frustrating Northwestern’s Princeton offense.
To say the least, the Wildcats will not win many game when they shoot 31.1 percent from the floor. They will not win many game when they hit on 7 of 25 3-pointers (three coming late from Tre Demps in a desperate comeback attempt). And it does not appear they will be able to do much with Drew Crawford scoring six points and hitting on just one of his nine shots.
Butler’s physicality had Northwestern on its heels and unable to properly run its Princeton offense. Without the ability to score points, the Bulldogs were able to maintain a 6-8 point lead for much of the second half. But it was a 6-8 point lead that seemed pretty insurmountable. That might be hard to say or believe, but the offense struggled that much.
Dave Sobolewski was the clear star. He was the only player that seemed to thrive under the physicality and pressure Butler put on NU. He scored 21 points on 6-for-11 shooting and 7-for-8 shooting from the foul line (good for a 72.3 percent true shooting percentage). However, he remained the only bright spot. The rest of Northwestern’s starters scored 27 points and shot 6 for 33 from the floor (18.2 percent). That included Jared Swopshire’s 0 for 6 effort and Reggie Hearn’s 3 for 10 effort. It was not like they did not play hard, they scratched out some tough plays throughout the game, they just could not put the ball into the basket.
Even when NU was able to execute or find open shooters, the team seemed like it was rushing its shots or trying to score before Butler’s tough defense could reset. More than anything the stat that exemplifies what happened in this game was NU’s 10 assists to 13 turnovers. The Wildcats very rarely have more turnovers than assists.
Credit to Butler’s defense for knocking NU off its offensive rhythm and making that stat happen, forcing NU into a rushed mindset on offense and that led to a lack of execution. The Wildcats, no matter how improved this team’s defense is, still need the offense to show up.
Defensively, NU did enough to give itself a chance for most of the game. The scoring margin remained close and Butler could not completely pull away. The Wildcats got to the line for 31 free throws, making 22, and that helped supplement the struggling offense. The defense helped hold down Butler particularly with Clarke and Smith in foul trouble in the first half.
Andrew Smith though did not commit a foul in the second half and made his impact felt as he cleaned up the glass for eight offensive rebounds and 24 points. NU was not able to match it on offense even with Sobolewski creating so much for himself and scoring enough to keep the game tight.
The difference between these two teams was in the confidence in what they were doing. Clarke had a run of shots in the first half after he came back on with two fouls that gave Butler the lead and some cushion to work with for the rest of the game. Northwestern found players like Michael Turner or Alex Olah open and instead of taking it in for an easier two or a foul, they rushed through an open shot. Perhaps that was experience or perhaps that was the pressure of more physical play on its way.
Either way, the Cats had a learning experience, did a few good things but ultimately came out with a loss. And ultimately came out with more questions to answer and more things to work on before coming back after Finals Week.