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How Iowa can beat Northwestern


Bill Carmody, Willie the Wildcat and John Shurna are all deathly afraid of g-g-g-ghosts, so make sure to come to the game with your sheets and noise makers handy.

The last time Iowa played Northwestern, it was a massacre. Iowa lost 83-64, Northwestern made 13-25 threes, forced 18 Iowa turnovers and generally made the Hawks look silly. Tomorrow the Wildcats come to town in desperate need of a win to improve their NCAA tournament chances and with every incentive in the world to play well. Worse still, Northwestern does just about everything on offense that Iowa struggles to stop on defense: they make threes from every position, move the ball well against pressure, and exploit overpursuit ruthlessly. And on defense, the Wildcats use a 1-3-1 zone that has given Iowa fits in the past. If the Hawks aren't careful, things could go down an awfully familiar path.

But all is not lost. The wonderful thing about playing Northwestern is that a large part of the battle is intellectual, not physical. The Wildcats aren't brains in jars, of course, but they're not Michigan State or Ohio State, either. John Shurna, Dave Sobolewski and Davide Curletti are all good, skilled players, but they aren't any stronger or faster than Eric May, Matt Gatens or Aaron White. Northwestern compensates for their lack of athleticism with crisp execution on offense and a zone defense that tries to force turnovers and deny three-point shots. When it's all working and when the opposition attacks them the wrong way, the Wildcats can look unstoppable. But if a team is patient and unravels the tricks the Wildcats throw at them, their imposing facade can fall apart completely. In this way they're a little like an opponent in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out! (or any number of other video game villains): until you locate the trick of timing that allows you to punch King Hippo in the belly button, you simply can't win, but once you do, he is actually quite vulnerable. So let's get to it: what are the tricks the Wildcats use?

1) The 1-3-1 Zone Defense

The Wildcats are not, in fact, a very good defensive team. They have a couple decent one-on-one defenders (Reggie Hearn, Drew Crawford), but also several eminently beatable turnstiles in Shurna, Sobolewski and Curletti. They currently are last in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency, giving up 1.11 points per game possession in conference play, so Iowa should be able to score on them. And in the last game, the Hawks actually did an okay job of scoring when they managed to get a shot up, making 51% of their field goals and 50% of our threes. The only problem was turnovers. Iowa had 18 turnovers in a fairly slow (62 possession) game, and almost all of that was due to Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone. Bryce Cartwright in particular seemed to struggle against the zone, committing five turnovers and looking lost much of the time. But other teams have managed to absolutely shred the Wildcat zone. What gives? It helps to look at the way the zone is set up:


(diagram courtesy

Northwestern tends to run a trapping variety of this defense, so you can imagine the number 2 or 3 player coming up and pressuring the ball as it shifts to one side or the other. The link on the diagram shows how the defense shifts as the ball is moved around the court, but it's clear right away where the strength of this defense is: in the middle, from the three-point line to the foul line. Four players are grouped together there, ready to collapse on any ball-handler foolish enough to attack the defense head on.

Unfortunately, that is precisely what Iowa decided to do the last time they played Northwestern. Bryce Cartwright, in particular, tried to dribble his way through the heart of the zone, with the predictable result that he was trapped and stripped several times. So how do other teams beat Northwestern's zone? Here's a good example from a Michigan State game a few years ago:

Note where Michigan State's guards do not go: directly at the center of the court. The Spartans do two really smart things here: 1) when the top two players in the Northwestern zone start to edge up in anticipation of a trap, the Michigan State guards back the ball out, often to near half court, stretching the zone out and creating gaping passing lanes; 2) after backing the ball out, they go around the zone, not at the zone, skipping the ball from side to side, stretching the zone even further, and looking for gaps to pass inside.

2) Rebound, rebound, rebound

The Wildcats have many strengths, but rebounding is not one of them. They are 329th out of 345 teams in opponent defensive rebounding percentage and 300th in opponent's offensive rebounding percentage. They are a team built for speed and outside shooting, not crashing the boards. Whoever is in the game at the forward position for Iowa needs to absolutely own Northwestern on the glass if the Hawks are to have a chance to win. White, Zach McCabe, Melsahn Basabe and Andrew Brommer will all have great opportunities to score off of missed shots, especially against the zone, which frequently leaves just one man under the basket. If Iowa plays the boards right, even their missed shots could be a reliable source of offense.

3) Drop the pressure just a bit

This is one area where I'm afraid Fran McCaffery's natural tendency to pressure will play into the hands of Bill Carmody's team. Northwestern's offense succeeds by spreading the defense out to its maximum extent and then using that spacing to force the defense into very tough choices, particularly on the pick and roll. Iowa's tendency, on the other hand, is to try to apply pressure to the opposition on the perimeter, with defenders hedging very hard and trapping on the pick and roll. Unfortunately, Northwestern's offense is designed to exploit just this kind of overpursuit. The players are spaced so far apart that one pass out of a trap will force even the fastest defense to run impossible distances to catch up with the ball -- and Iowa is not a particularly fast defense. So what can Iowa do?

The answer may be "nothing all that great." Northwestern is simply good on offense, with excellent three-point shooters at four positions and a collection of very smart and skilled players. But if anything works against Northwestern, it is extreme simplicity: man-to-man defense, limited switching, and denying the three-point shot. The cost of this type of defense is that it puts a lot of pressure on individual defenders to stop dribble penetration and back-cuts. The advantages are that you force Northwestern to beat you athlete for athlete and you keep track of the three-point line. Iowa doesn't necessarily have the strongest one-on-one defenders, so there may be no ideal answer here. The only thing that really recommends simple man-to-man and no switching is that twos are worth less than threes.

If Iowa does feel the need to switch off of Northwestern's players, though, there is one player that is more ignore-able than others: Davide Curletti. He's by far the worst three-point shooter in the starting lineup and is the only player without much of a one-on-one perimeter game. If Iowa matches Basabe or White on Curletti, either one of those players could afford to roam the passing lanes and go for blocked shots without too much of a downside.

4) Never forget: it's all about the three-point shot

The embarrassment of getting beat on a back cut may make teams a little oversensitive about that aspect of Northwestern's offense, but it's important to remember that everything they do is predicated on the three-point shot. The Wildcats have taken 1527 field goal attempts this year and 44% of them (677) have been from three. That is the eighth highest percentage in the country. All the motion, all picks, all the back cuts -- they are all designed to generate looks from three, with just enough of a threat of a cut to the basket that the defense has to remain honest. It may be painful for Iowa's coaches to countenance the risk of easy layups, but if it's a choice between Northwestern winning the game from two-point range as opposed to three-point range, Iowa needs to make the Wildcats shoot twos. To that end...

5) Gum up the works of their offense as best you can

Northwestern's offense is based on timing and swift movement, so Iowa needs to throw sand in the gears of the machine whenever they can. Cuts through the lane and around screens cannot be a frictionless activity for Northwestern -- Iowa needs to make as much legal contact as they can. And even if they go too far and commit a foul, remember that Northwestern plays one of the slower paces in the Big Ten, so foul trouble may not even come into play.

The Hawks should also be attuned to the rhythm of the Wildcat's picking and cutting and do whatever they can to disrupt it. Many of their picks are barely even set before they are released toward the basket. Some are set so briefly that they are, in fact, moving screens. If Iowa can guess where the Wildcats are going to release off of their screens and get directly in the way, they may be rewarded with a few offensive foul calls.

The Hawks can also use the Wildcat offense against itself. The Northwestern offense demands a lot of its own players in terms of reading the defense as a whole and making the right pass. The nice part about that is that many times passers are not even watching their own defender. If the Wildcats have a King Hippo moment, it's that split-second when a passer is trying to decide whether to pass it out to the three-point line or to fake it and throw a back-door pass to the basket. In that moment, the ball is out and the passer's eyes are away from his defender, making it the perfect moment to swipe at the ball.


Luka Mirkovic in a distracted moment.

6) Devote some attention to Shurna, but not too much

John Shurna is a great player and a match-up nightmare, but he is also just a cog in a bigger system. Devoting too much attention to Shurna may perversely make the Wildcat offense even better, because it will open up shots and cutting lanes for the other great shooters on his team. The one area where Iowa cannot allow Shurna to kill them, however, is from the three-point line. Shurna is attempting 6.4 threes per game and is shooting 42.5% from distance. By contrast, he is attempting 8.5 shots per game from two-point range and averaging a 50.6% percentage on twos, so his two-point shots average out to be worth 1.01 points and his three-point shots 1.28 points. The numbers are clear: it's a better bet to force Shurna to take twos than threes.

7) Exploit match-ups on offense

As I said earlier, there are better and worse defenders on Northwestern. If Iowa can get some of their better ball-handlers matched up against Sobolewski, Shurna or Curletti, then they will be able to beat them off the dribble in isolation. Northwestern will probably devote a lot of attention to Gatens, so Iowa may be able to manipulate switches on screens to get the match-ups they want. Specifically Marble or Cartwright on Sobolewski or McCabe posted up on Shurna seem like good match-ups. Again, simplicity may be the answer: a simple clear out for Marble or Cartwright should be enough to give them the space to beat Sobolewski.

8) Use the seniors

It is senior night, after all, so we can expect to see some token appearances by Brommer and Devon Archie. But Iowa can use these players in a way that is not merely ceremonial: as minute and foul sponges. As I mentioned above, Northwestern plays a fairly slow pace, so Iowa can afford to commit a few fouls if it means frustrating the timing of the Wildcat offense. Also, Northwestern is playing with an extremely limited bench. If Iowa can afford to throw wave after wave of bench players at the Wildcats, Fran's squad should be the fresher team down the stretch.

Fran will surely have his own, more sophisticated plan in place, but whatever the Hawks do, it seems like beating Northwestern will come down to three things: 1) stopping the three-point shot, 2) avoiding turnovers, and 3) dominating the boards. If they can do all those things, they should have a very good chance of sending Matt Gatens off with a victory on Senior Day. Crushing the spirits of all Northwestern fans everywhere will just be the cherry on top of the sundae. Go Hawks!