Northwestern’s loss to Indiana was truly a tale of two halves. It was not a cliche lead that reporters often go to when a team plays so drastically different in two halves that you have to recall Charles Dickens to aptly describe it. It is a lead we were told to avoid in Medill classes.
After Sunday’s game though it really does not seem like there is a more apt way to describe what happened against the Hoosiers. The Wildcats went from scoring 17 points in the first half to 42 points in the second half. That is a startling transformation through a brief 15-minute halftime.
The second half though was really quite encouraging. Northwestern was battling from behind the entire afternoon thanks to that slow first half start, and the poor shooting start that came with it. But the Wildcats found a little bit of the formula they will need to use to have a successful season the rest of the year. The players sensed it too in believing that the team established its identity.
And what is that identity?
The broadcast for the last several games have alluded to Northwestern as a shooting team. The backdoor cuts are not the hallmark of the team (although it is something every opponent has to guard against), but this team without a good low post presence or dribble penetrator is relying a lot on its 3-pointers and patience in pulling apart the defense to get shots.
The Wildcats are averaging 21.7 3-point attempts per game. Their 413 attempts are second in the Big Ten and 33rd in the nation. A little more than 40 percent of Northwestern’s overall field goal attempts are from beyond the arc. It is a big part of the team’s game.
When you talk about 3-point shooting, it is usually built off of dribble penetration and postups. Teams that shoot a lot of 3-pointers try to make the defense move and rotate and suck into the paint. Northwestern though does not have any of that. Drew Crawford was the best one-on-one player and the guy most likely to make the defense bend to his will is not longer there.
Early on in the game against Indiana, Northwestern tried to establish some post presence with Alex Olah. The first few possessions were set up to get Olah some post opportunities. Olah missed both and he seemed to go into a shell. From there, Cody Zeller was playing center field in the middle of the paint laying so far off Olah that he was preventing anyone from cutting. It really disrupted Northwestern’s offense.
It made it difficult for the Wildcats to get good looks on 3-pointers. And that is why Northwestern was 7 for 23 from the floor and 1 of 9 from beyond the arc. Olah, if you are interested, was 1 for 6 from the floor. Through those field goal attempts you can see that there was a concerted effort to get Olah the ball early on.
The second half, as noted, was a different story. The Wildcats shot 50.0 percent from the floor and 5 for 10 from beyond the arc. Olah had two points on one field goal. In the second half, Jared Swopshire scored 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting. Not to mention Northwestern got 15 free throw attempts with Reggie Hearn getting eight attempts.
The Wildcats were much more aggressive in the second half and the offense was better for it. It goes against basketball logic to work outside-in.
In wins, Northwestern is shooting 42.9 percent. In losses, the Wildcats shoot 28.7 percent. Locking down the 3-point line is very clearly the goal when playing Northwestern.
And if Olah, who actually averages more points in losses than he does in wins, is unable to loosen up the interior of the defense by forcing opposing centers to pay attention to him, then the Wildcats will find it very difficult to score efficiently.
This is a live-by-the-three, die-by-the-three team. That is part of their identity. And so the rest of the season, the Wildcats have to do a better job freeing up that space and getting good looks from long range.
If they can do that, there could be some good play yet to come.