Men’s Basketball: Perimeter defense dooms NU

Andrew Simon

When Northwestern and Iowa came onto the Welsh-Ryan Arena court to warm up before the opening tip Tuesday, it appeared the Wildcats would be at a distinct defensive disadvantage.

With 6-foot-8, 240-pound bulldozer Cyrus Tate, 7-foot, 245-pound monster Seth Gorney and 6-foot-10, 210-pound skyscraper Kurt Looby, the Hawkeyes dwarfed the miniature Cats.

Considering this size differential and the way things played out when the two teams met Feb. 19 in Iowa, one would have expected the Hawkeyes to bully the Cats in the paint all game long. In that first meeting, Tate abused the NU defense down the stretch, proving to be the difference in the Cats’ 53-51 loss. He scored 15 of his 18 points in the second half.

And as it turned out, NU was at a significant disadvantage on the defensive end of the floor all game long. It just wasn’t the one you would have expected.

The biggest culprit in the Cats’ 16th loss in 17 Big Ten games was perimeter defense.

The Hawkeyes shot a lights-out 12 of 23 (52.2 percent) from downtown and consistently got big 3s when they needed them in a tight 67-62 victory.

Surprisingly, NU outscored Iowa in the paint, had more second-chance points and collected just five fewer rebounds, despite fielding a much smaller squad. Along with the team’s 23-9 advangatge in points off turnovers,t his should have been enough to win.

Too bad the Cats were nearly helpless against the Hawkeyes’ 3-point barrage.

They tried a 1-3-1 zone and a matchup zone, but neither proved effective, as the trio of Tony Freeman, Justin Johnson and Jake Kelly assaulted NU from long distance all night.

No matter the defense, the Hawkeyes consistently found the open man with sharp passing, and the Cats were slow to react.

Freshman guard Michael Thompson said the team was prepared, but simply failed to execute.

“We didn’t close out on the correct shooter,” he said. “We talked about that all week in practice, but we just had mental lapses on defense, and their shooters made a lot of shots.”

This lack of execution clearly hurt NU. Iowa’s ability to set up and convert open shots from beyond the arc helped it capitalize in key moments.

With 7:48 left in the first half, the Hawkeyes had already knocked down five treys, building a 17-point advantage.

But as the game wound down, NU played resiliently and had a chance to win. Junior guard Craig Moore, who was silent for much of the game, hit two big 3s in the final two minutes.

Problem was, Iowa also knocked down a pair of treys and maintained a one-point edge that allowed them to seal the win at the free-throw line.

You could give all of the credit to Iowa, which knocked down 12 treys two games ago against Penn State. But the Hawkeyes were still only eighth in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting percentage coming into the game, at 34.7 percent.

You would be more accurate if you gave most of the blame to NU, which has had a problem defending the perimeter shot all season. Entering Tuesday, the Cats sat last in the conference in defending the 3, surrendering a 39.6 percent mark.

With as few as two games remaining this season, the Cats don’t have much time to correct the problem. But if they want to play more than two more games, they’re going to have to.

Sports editor Andrew Simon is a Medill senior. He can be reached at [email protected]