Deconstructing NU’s ‘D’

John Eligon

Following last week’s win at Michigan, Northwestern forward Tavaras Hardy admitted that his team sometimes doesn’t know what it’s doing on defense.

And apparently, Wildcats head coach Bill Carmody agrees.

Before practice on Monday, Carmody said that Hardy was right – NU doesn’t always know what’s going on.

But whether the Cats know it or not, their dynamic defense has produced results.

NU has allowed just 57.9 points per game this season, tops in the Big Ten. The Cats have also held their opponents to 38.8 percent shooting from the field, second-best in the league. And as a team, NU leads the conference in steals, with 8.6 per game.

“We have the athletic potential to stop anyone in our league,” NU swingman Jason Burke says.

Much of the Cats’ defensive success begins with their speedy backcourt. Guard Jitim Young ranks first in the Big Ten in steals, while his counterpart Collier Drayton ranks fifth. The pair is always looking for opportunities to strip the ball from opponents, Drayton says.

“Me and Jitim, we’ve got good hands,” he says. “So, whenever we think we can get a steal, we’ve got the freedom to go for it. A good 80 percent of the time we’re getting the steals.”

Communication and awareness are the keys to the dynamite duo’s thievery, Young says.

A typical defensive trip could go something like this:

An opposing offensive player starts bringing the ball up the court with a fresh 35 seconds on the shot clock, and Young positions himself to shadow the ball handler. As Young shuffles down the court, he licks his chops at the opportunity to swipe the ball.

Early in a game, Young says he may not reach for many steals. But as the game progresses, he tightens up his defense.

“If you pressure them sometimes and ease off them the next time, that kind of throws (the ball handler) off so he won’t know when you’re coming in and when you’re not,” Young says. “Me, Collier and Jason, I think we do a great job of changing up how we play defense on people.”

Even when a steal attempt is unsuccessful, the pressure that Young provides is still critical. It keeps the offensive player in check and slows him down, giving the opposition less time to set up its offense.

The shot clock continues to tick. Young forces his opponent toward the sideline, allowing Drayton to swoop in from the blind side and go for a steal – or at least stall any cutback attempts by the ball handler.

Should the opposing team manage to escape the NU guards’ harrassment, the Cats move into their “man/zone” defensive set.

While its zone formation depends on the offensive setup, NU usually enters either a 2-3 or a 1-2-2 scheme.

In the 2-3, NU places its guards on opposite sides of the arc with its three big men spread across the baseline. The 1-2-2, on the other hand, positions one guard at the top of the key with the other four defenders stacked below him.

The pressure of Young and Drayton typically causes about 10 seconds to run off the clock by the time the offense has gotten into its half-court set. Young yells to his teammates that he’s going to cover the opposing point guard, who currently has the ball.

The guard passes the ball to his teammate on the wing and streaks down the middle of the lane, forcing Young to leave his zone.

“There are some times when you have to run with them,” Drayton said. “If it’s an average player or they’re not that good, we just pass them on.”

Drayton swarms the offensive player who just caught the point guard’s pass, while NU forward Winston Blake fills the zone that Young left open. Hardy and center Aaron Jennings hold their zones in the post.

The shot clock is now down to just 10 seconds, and the offensive players can’t seem to find any gaps to penetrate the NU defense. So they swing the ball around the arc, and the shooting guard has what appears to be an open three-point attempt. But as he elevates to shoot, Drayton comes around on his rotation and slaps the ball out of the shooter’s hands, giving NU a fast break headed the other way.

The Cats have shown stifling defense like this all season.

“NU does an outstanding job of holding in and switching a lot, making it difficult for you to penetrate or drive the ball inside,” Michigan head coach Tommy Amaker says. “We think it causes you to quick-shoot against them, which is probably what they want you to do.”

The “man/zone,” as Burke calls it, is different from a normal zone defense in that it allows players the freedom to roam out of their regular areas.

“We try to put pressure on the ball,” Carmody says. “Everybody is looking to try to figure out what the other team’s trying to do. It’s not like you’re holding hands with your guy all the time on the perimeter.”

Although Carmody couldn’t put a finger on his team’s defensive success this season, he gives his players much of the credit for working the man/zone defense to perfection.

“The guys are working hard,” Carmody says. “We just have to continue to do that.”