Men’s Basketball Precede: NU looks to fix issues on ‘D’ against Liberty

Danny Daly

Northwestern is tough to score against when its defensive schemes are clicking, as teams struggle to get open against the chaotic 1-3-1 and matchup zone defenses. The problem for the Wildcats so far has been their tendency to give up easy shots that ordinarily wouldn’t be there.

Against Butler and Tennessee State, the issue was painfully apparent. The Bulldogs and Tigers found openings on the perimeter, especially early in the second half. Both teams made four consecutive 3-pointers during a stretch in the first nine minutes after intermission, which allowed Butler to turn a six-point halftime lead into a blowout and Tennessee State to keep its unlikely edge.

“I asked (junior guard) Mike (Thompson), ‘How are they getting those shots out of the corner?'” Carmody said after the win. “Because the guy wasn’t picking them, the guy wasn’t down there. Normally we say if the ball’s at the guard position, to get it into the corner it has to go over a guy’s head or (be) a bounce pass. Either one, Mike can usually get to. So I really have to look at the tapes.”

By Monday morning, Carmody had viewed the footage and noticed a few problems that need to be corrected before his squad faces Liberty at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Tuesday night.

“There isn’t enough pressure on the ball, whether we’re the 1-3-1 or our matchup,” the 10th-year coach said. “It seems like the guy with the ball is at ease and is comfortable, and we always say we try to make our guys play them in such a way that they’re not facing the court, that they have to turn their back a little bit.”

Carmody also called Thompson “a little conservative” in getting to the outside and stressed the importance of anticipating passes to the corner more quickly.

The momentum started shifting back toward the Cats once their defense began playing aggressively and pressuring full-court after the Tigers took a 61-53 lead. NU forced five turnovers in the last four minutes.

Tennessee State had used the same tactics in the first half to close the gap and eventually go ahead, but the team looked disoriented when facing more pressure.

“When we picked up that energy and started to attack more, they started turning it over,” senior guard Jeremy Nash said. “Like coach says all the time, teams that like to press don’t like to be pressed.”

For most of last season, Nash played at the top of the 1-3-1 scheme. He was effective, recording 35 steals and leading the team in takeaways per 40 minutes with nearly two-and-a-half.

But Sunday, Carmody moved Nash down to the second line when guard Alex Marcotullio subbed in, which enabled the 6-foot-3 freshman to man Nash’s normal spot.

“It helps Alex because he’s a little bit smaller than me,” Nash said. “Now I can sit back and get more steals that are coming over the top.”

Carmody and his coaching staff are utilizing tape from last season to highlight why the 1-3-1 worked then and how it is faltering now. NU ranked in the top half of the Big Ten in points allowed per game and opponents’ field-goal percentage a year ago, also forcing the second-most turnovers per contest.

One of the changes has been Nash’s production on the defensive end. Carmody pointed out to Nash what has gone wrong so far in 2009.

“Jeremy at the top (last year) and then this year, it looks like two different people out there,” Carmody said. “Sometimes, you don’t even realize you’re doing things a little differently.”

While some of the struggles might have been slightly unexpected, Carmody anticipated a learning curve for his freshmen.

Both Marcotullio and forward Drew Crawford are getting substantial playing time early in their careers. Mistakes are inevitable as they adjust to the system.

“With Alex and Drew, it’ll take a little while,” Carmody said. “When we were in a combination yesterday, Drew gave up about four wide-open shots because he was switching when he shouldn’t have switched and didn’t switch when he should have switched. I’m not surprised by that, I just know we’ve got to get better at it.”[email protected]