The Minute After: Northwestern

  • 01/08/2023 3:08 pm in

Thoughts on an 84-83 loss to the Wildcats:

This is not the Northwestern of old.

The Wildcats are one of the best defensive teams in the country. It showed today. While they don’t overpower with pressure or athleticism, don’t run a specialized system they’ve run for years they recruit to, their ability to steal and block the ball was a major factor in this one. Northwestern turned Indiana over on nearly a quarter of its possessions this afternoon (22 percent) and it helped lead to a serious disadvantage in points off turnovers. The Wildcats won that battle 25-6.

And yet, despite the Hoosiers sitting at just .88 points per possession around midway through the second half and finding themselves down double-digits, a late rally was almost enough to pull off a comeback victory. Thanks to some hyper-efficient offense down the stretch, Indiana finished at 1.12 points per possession. That’s the second-most efficient offensive performance against the Wildcats this year. Indiana’s 83 points were also the second-most scored against Northwestern all season.

Against a Wildcats team that’s middling on offense, it should have been more than enough. But without Xavier Johnson and Race Thompson in the lineup, Indiana’s defense continues to struggle. Northwestern was so unstoppable on offense to start the game, getting out to a 17-point lead, that Mike Woodson actually decided to go zone defense — about as rare a sight as any. He again tossed zone at Northwestern for a stretch in the second half.

“We played a lot of zone,” Woodson said after the game. “More zone than I’ve ever played as a coach … I am trying to change it up a little bit.”

The 1.14 points per possession Northwestern posted against the Hoosiers today was its best against high-major competition. The Wildcats have only done better against UIC (KenPom 270) and Chicago State (KenPom 311) so far this season.

Johnson’s on-ball tenacity as the head of the snake for Indiana’s defense is a big loss. While Jalen Hood-Schifino has been brilliant offensively in the last two contests (54 points, 10-of-15 from 3-point range, 12 assists and six rebounds), his ball pressure isn’t the same. With Indiana’s perimeter defense taking a step back, Northwestern was able to get more straight-line drives to the rim and capitalized. And with less experience and maturity on defense as a whole, Trayce Jackson-Davis had this to say after the contest.

“Coach had a great plan and I don’t think we followed it at all,” he said.  “… It’s not going to go well when you don’t listen to your coaches … They were getting whatever shots they wanted.”

For his part, Jackson-Davis did everything he could. Indiana’s best player, hobbled by back problems, played all 40 minutes. He pulled down 24 rebounds, the most by an IU player since Kent Benson snagged 23 in 1975. He nearly posted another triple-double, adding 18 points and eight assists. But basketball is a team sport. And with the Hoosiers down two starters, his Herculean efforts have now come with losses in back-to-back games.

Since starting the season 7-0, the Hoosiers have lost five of eight. Nebraska is their only high-major win in over a month.

“Nobody’s gonna feel sorry for the Indiana Hoosiers,” Woodson said.

Indeed. Indiana needs to put its head down and try to keep figuring it out down Johnson and Thompson. Because if the losses keep piling up, a trip to the NCAA tournament may again be hanging in the balance come March.

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