Men’s Basketball: Wildcats need defensive improvement to overcome Spartans in rematch


Sean Su/Daily Senior Staffer

Nathan Taphorn goes up for a layup. The impactful sophomore forward has been sidelined with a stress injury in his foot for most of Northwestern’s losing streak.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

Men’s Basketball

Northwestern almost beat Michigan State when these two teams last met Jan. 11.

The Wildcats (10-13, 1-9 Big Ten) had the ball near the end of regulation with the score tied at 72, but a long jumper from junior guard Tre Demps was off the mark and the Spartans (15-8, 6-4) rallied in overtime to put away NU. Coach Chris Collins will look for a better result Tuesday when the Cats host Michigan State in a rematch, but the numbers aren’t in his favor.

There are many potential attributions for NU’s struggles this season, from a young roster to bad luck, but statistically nothing sticks out more than the Cats marked defensive regression. NU had the second-best scoring defense in conference play last season, yielding just 63.3 points per game. The team has slid all the way to 13th this year by giving up 68.6 points per conference game.

Part of that has been an adjustment in pace. The Cats ran a slow, deliberate offense last season in an effort to limit the total number of possessions in each game. Thanks to the crop of more athletic and offensively-skilled freshmen Collins brought in after his first season, NU has been more willing to run an up-tempo scheme and has naturally conceded more points on the other end of the court.

What’s concerning is that the team’s defensive rate statistics, those independent of the number of possessions, have also shown regression. The Cats were third in opposing field goal percentage last year with a 41.9 percent mark, but this season they’re ranked 12th at 44.7 percent. The same slide has occurred in their 3-point defense, with NU backpedaling from fourth with 32.2 percent to 13th with 38 percent.

Two things haven’t changed from a year ago: The Cats are still bad at rebounding and terrible at generating steals. NU is 11th in conference play with 30.5 rebounds per game, almost identical to its mark from last season, and last in steals with 2.7 per game, a huge drop off from the 4.4 per game which also ranked last a year ago.

Of course, more possessions per game means Collins’ squad should have actually improved in both those categories. Whatever the reason for the regression – personnel turnover, schematic changes or something else entirely – it’s bad news against a veteran Michigan State team that starts four upperclassmen.

In the previous contest between the Cats and Spartans, Michigan State guard Travis Trice torched NU for a game-high-tying 18 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Backcourt mate Denzel Valentine just trailed him with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting. Valentine was held to just one made 3-pointer on four attempts, but the 42.1 percent shooter from beyond the arc is likely to be more dangerous in the rematch.

Whatever ground NU has gained on offense simply hasn’t been enough to cover up the defensive deficits. The Cats shot 48 percent from beyond the arc on Jan. 11, a mark they’re very unlikely to match Tuesday given their season 36 percent rate.

NU has had many growing pains this season with a second-year coach and young roster, and defense, once thought to be a strength of the team, has proven to be one of them. A stronger performance on their own end of the court would be a big boost for the Cats in attempting to avoid their 10th consecutive loss.

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