I've mentioned before that I most look forward to the Michigan State games. They are challenging and I enjoy watching the Spartans execute on both ends of the floor. The Northwestern match ups are the games I most fear on the schedule.
The Wildcats are a unique team that runs an offense and a defense that is unlike any other in the Big Ten. This usually gives them a slight advantage as teams are generally not prepared. Fortunately, in most years, the Wildcat's talent level isn't on the same level as much of the rest of the Big Ten. But that is slowly changing and this team is dangerous and capable of knocking off anybody in the conference.
On offense, it is no secret that Northwestern runs the infamous Princeton Offense. Precision passing, quick back cuts for layups and open threes are what you can expect to see when the Gophers are defending tonight. Especially with Al Nolen on the bench, this is a scary match up for the Gopher defense. The best thing they can do is put on the pressure in the full court, force turnovers and not let Northwestern get into a rhythm in the half court. If they do get into their offense we should feel fortunate to have a couple very good shot blockers to help protect the rim. But what concerns me the most is that the Cats will likely have a number of wide open threes. Slowing down, or better yet preventing Northwestern from getting into their offense will be critical tonight.
Defensively Northwestern employs a 1-3-1 defense. While everyone reading this knows what a 1-3-1 defense is and probably feels they understand it better than say the Princeton Offense, it is actually rather different at it's corp. Man-to-man and even most zone defenses have the same basic principles. Guard your man, protect from penetration and guard the basket. A man-to-man defense is pretty straight forward, you guard your guy and if your guy doesn't have the ball you should be up the line to help with the drive (if you are one pass away) or you sag into the lane to guard the basket (if you are two passes away). Even a zone is the same basic idea you just aren't responsible for a man you are responsible for an area. But it is the same thing, if you aren't guarding the ball you are packing the middle to discourage penetration and guard the basket.
A 1-3-1 is different. The purpose is to guard your man (obviously) and then the other four guys are defending passing lanes, not penetration lanes. And it cannot be overlooked that by nature of the 1-3-1 set up offenses to put the ball in highly vulnerable trap areas. You have the man up top who is there to force the reversal pass to be as high as possible taking the offense away from the basket. You have the middle man on defense who makes it difficult to pass into the middle of the lane where a zone is most vulnerable. The two men on the outside make passing into the post area difficult yet they are not so close to the hoop that they can't get out to guard the perimeter. And the man at the bottom has room to move from block to block making passing from the short-corner to the short-corner difficult. To attack this defense the Gophers have to penetrate to the elbow, not creep higher and higher trying to revers the ball. Attack the elbow to reverse the ball and have a shooter running the baseline where the Gophers will have 2 men out wide with one man left to decide who he is going to guard.
All of this concerns me because the Gophers, especially without Al Nolen, are not well suited to defend the Princeton Offense. And we struggle with most zone defenses. Going back to 2008 the 1-3-1 stymied the Gopher offense at Northwestern though really was useless for the game at the Barn where the Gophers won 45-72.
With all of that said the absolute key to the game is getting to open three point shooters and disrupting them! This team has five players who have attempted 73 or more shots from behind the arc, the Gophers have one who has taken at least that many. As a team they have taken 131 more three point shots than the Gophers have. Lay ups and open threes are what you will see tonight, nothing in between. We absolutely have to get out to shooters and disrupt them early and often.
Were this game on the road I would not hesitate to predict a Northwestern win. Fortunately this game is at home and I am confident that the Gophers will score some points. If they can keep Northwestern off balance offensively, even just a little bit, we should be OK. But this game concerns me.