March 12, 2014
NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski previews the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis as Northwestern opens with Iowa on Thursday.
THERE ARE NO SECRETS when teams face off for the third time in a season, which will be the case Thursday night when the `Cats and Iowa meet in the final game of the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. So Chris Collins is able to quickly tick off the problems posed by the Hawkeyes -- their athleticism, their depth, their preferred pace of play. "The first game," he then goes on, "they were able to impose their will right away. The second game, it took awhile, but then they were able to break us down as the game went on.
"So it's going to be very important for us to try and control the tempo as much as we can. Try to keep the score at a more manageable number for us, not in the 80s or 90s, more in the high 50s, low 60s. It's not easy. They're averaging 78 points a game. For us, we have give ourselves a chance down the stretch. In both the games we played them, we didn't do that. In the last eight minutes of the game, the last five minutes, you want to be in striking distance so you can make some plays to maybe steal the game."
LET US IGNORE THE FIRST GAME, which the Hawkeyes won at home by 26 on Jan. 9. The `Cats, back then, had yet to metamorphose into the gnarly defensive group that would now go on to win five of its next seven. ("We were a different team back then," says Drew Crawford.) But their new persona was in place for their Jan. 25 rematch at Welsh-Ryan, where they trailed by just six at halftime before again falling by 26. What happened here, then, is instructive, and it went like this.
Early in the second half, the Hawkeyes used a 66-second burst to stretch a four-point lead to 11. The `Cats steadied themselves here and clawed back to within seven with 12:42 remaining. But now the Hawkeyes flurried again and, over the next 3:14, put the `Cats away for good by building their lead to 18. "I just thought they broke us down in terms of getting us to play more their style," explains Collins, fleshing out his earlier observation. "At halftime, it was 30-24. It was at our pace. It was a slower game. We did a good job getting back in transition.
"Then in the second half I felt their waves of athleticism--and they're very aggressive; they pressure you defensively; they trap you in the half court; they do some good things to try to speed you up and make you play at their tempo. I thought for 25 minutes of the game, we did a great job of handling that. Then we got a little tired. Their ability to keep fresh bodies in the game wore us down. Their bench, in both the games, was a key, deciding factor."
"We kind of laid down the middle of the second half," Crawford will say more succinctly when thinking of that game. "So the biggest thing for us is we have to play for 40 minutes. We have to play a great 40-minute game to have a chance to win."
HERE IS WHY that is a daunting task for the `Cats, who had a short bench even before JerShon Cobb was shut down for the season with injuries. Crawford, in league play, is averaging a Big Ten best 38.4 minutes per game, and just behind him are Tre Demps (33.3), Alex Olah (32.5) and Sanjay Lumpkin (31.2). The Hawkeyes' only iron men, in stark contrast, are Roy Devyn Marble (32.7) and Aaron White (31.1), and behind them are seven players who average between 26.1 and 14.9 minutes a game.
"They play a lot of guys, which makes it tough. They constantly have fresh guys coming on who're all capable players, great Big Ten players," Crawford will say when asked about this depth issue. "But that's something that we're used to and we're well conditioned, we're ready to play for 40 minutes."
HERE IS ANOTHER bit of data to consider. The Hawkeye bench put up 32 points in that second game. The `Cat bench, (again) in stark contrast, managed just 13 and 11 of those were produced by Demps, who is now starting. "We just have to play our game," Collins will reiterate when asked how his team can counter this disparity. "In the games we've been successful, we've been able to keep the scores down, keep it more a possession-by-possession game. We have to get back. That's the number one key. You have to get back in transition. You can't give them fast break points. Then the other thing they do really well is rebound the ball. So offensive rebounds is going to be key, and they have a lot of big bodies and they're very long, especially their perimeter guys. So we need five guys on the boards. We've got to get back. And we've got to make it a possession-by-possession game."
HERE IS ONE LAST KEY for the `Cats. They must treat every offensive possession with the same tender, loving care a mother showers on her young baby. "We can't turn the ball over. We can't take errant shots. That's what leads to run outs and they're a great transition team," explains Crawford. "So the way we take care of the ball offensively is going to be important and then having the mindset to get back every possession."
"They're real aggressive. They like to hedge hard on ball screens. We know they like to pick up and pressure and try and disrupt the offense," echoes Demps. "So we've just got to do a good job taking care of the ball and making good decisions. We have to be decisive and confident in our shots. They get out, they like to play the passing lanes. But when you do that, you give up some stuff as well. So we've got to be confident we can make plays and be aggressive."
"You can't turn it over. We call it live-ball turnovers," concludes Collins. "Against this team, it's almost like a pick-six in football. If you turn it over, a live-ball turnover, it's going to be a basket at the other end. They're just too fast and too athletic in the open floor. And then, if you do miss shots, you have to have what we call good defensive balance, where the shots are expected by your teammates so we have guys getting back. For us, that's been one of the things that's helped us. We've sacrificed sending a lot of guys to the offensive board in order to help our transition defense, and you really have to do that against this team. Because they make you pay in the open court."
AND FINALLY, Crawford, summing it all up: "Our fighting spirit's going to be most-important for us. We have to play hard every single minute we're on the court."
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