Northwestern is not known for its defense or its rebounding. The Wildcats are often using that 1-3-1 zone to cover up individual defensive shortcomings and they do not have the size or consistency to go up against bigger, more physical front lines.
Minnesota has one of those front lines with Trevor Mbakwe and the super athletic Rodney Williams. These are the kind of players that always give Northwestern trouble. The Golden Gophers did that plenty in the first game of this series, where the Gophers won 69-51 after a low-scoring first half. That was one of the Wildcats’ worst defensive games. Minnesota scored 52 points in the second half as Minnesota dictated the pace and overwhelmed NU.
Northwestern’s defense though is pretty good. Although the Wildcats are ranked 10th in the Big Ten, their 98.0 defensive rating (a measure of points allowed per 100 possessions) is actually a solid showing. Numbers can be skewed by the schedule — in the Big Ten, Northwestern is last in the conference with a 111.2 defensive rating (which is actually slightly better from last year).
The Wildcats are trying to slow the game down to make up for this with the second slowest pace in the conference (an already slow conference). The plain fact is that unless NU’s offense gets significantly better, the team will have to get stops in order to win games in the Big Ten. Better defensive efficiency is still needed — and the raw numbers hide this because the Cats’ 68.0 points allowed per game does not seem so bad.
Northwestern’s defense is as much a concern as the offense is right now. The offense was something many expected to take a step back when Drew Crawford got hurt. The defense though has to be something Northwestern continually improves on.
One of NU’s biggest weaknesses is on the glass. The Wildcats give up an astounding 41.8 percent offensive rebound rate. That means teams grab 41.8 percent of their misses against. This is (quite obviously) last in the Big Ten and a very very bad number. Second chance opportunities are plentiful for Northwestern’s opponents and this is a bigger problem than not.
It is important here not to worry too much about the raw numbers. Bill Carmody is famous on several occasions for saying he is not too concerned with rebounding numbers — NU’s offensive rebound rate is 23.1 percent, 11th in the Big Ten — and is more concerned with his team getting back to prevent fast break opportunities and playing defense regardless of the number of rebounds collected.
I remember covering Northwestern back in 2007-08 and bringing the rebounding numbers up a few times with Carmody. He brushed off the question blaming the offense’s struggles in getting the ball into the basket as the reason for the disparity in the raw rebounding numbers. That makes intuitive sense — if you miss more shots, your opponent has more chances to grab rebounds. Unknowingly, Carmody was putting some support behind the notion of offensive rebound and defensive rebound rate.
However, as happened in 2008 and is happening now, Northwestern is giving up a lot of second chance opportunities to opponents and that is weakening the defense significantly.
As far as offense and defense, against Indiana, we did pretty well,’’ Reggie Hearn told Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘The rebounding is what really killed us. They beat us by 12 on the boards. That was the biggest difference in the game, and we know that’s going to be the case against Minnesota.
Tonight, offensive rebounds will be extremely important for Northwestern. The Golden Gophers had a 63.6 percent offensive rebound rate. That high rate foreshadowed the runaway victory Minnesota earned. The Golden Gophers had a 58.5 percent offensive rebound rate in the first half of that game, they just could not finish. The Wildcats could not slow down the rate at which the Gophers grabbed offensive rebounds and we know the result.
The key to improving Northwestern’s defense is quite simply give up only one shot per possession. Allowing teams to continue grabbing offensive rebounds at such a high rate will only lead to more stress on an already struggling offense and more troubles for Northwestern.