Men’s Basketball: Cats’ dedication to zone defense sparks another victory


Noah Frick-Alofs/Daily Senior Staffer

Chris Collins paces the sidelines. Collins and the Wildcats finally picked up the win over a ranked team that they’ve been searching for all season.

Ben Pope, Managing Editor

Men’s Basketball

Tuesday’s statement win over No. 20 Michigan might mark Northwestern’s true arrival into the thick of the Big Ten race, but the Wildcats’ surge to get back into this position truly started weeks ago with the implementation of a zone defense.

“When we made some changes defensively when we went to our zone, we started to see a significant change,” senior guard Bryant McIntosh said. “We believed in that defense and it’s really worked for us. … That’s when we started to turn our corner.”

Since debuting the zone scheme for the first time this year — coach Chris Collins did employ a zone-like hybrid defense back in 2015 and 2016, too — on Jan. 10 against Minnesota, NU (15-10, 6-6 Big Ten) has won five of eight games and held opponents to 40.7 percent shooting.

And it’s only improved over time, too. In three consecutive games now, the Cats have held their opponents to fewer than 60 points — the first time they’ve done that in Big Ten play since early 2014. In the second half of Tuesday’s 61-52 NU win, the Wolverines (19-7, 8-5) made just five field goals — total.

For even those who claim zone defenses are empirically inferior to man defenses in the sport of basketball, the reality that this system emphatically works for NU is indisputable.

“It is really good,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “You very, very rarely see it, especially with that type of length everywhere. It’s got a chance to help them win a lot of games.”

The fact that Beilein, despite getting a good look at it for a full 40 minutes in the first meeting between the teams just eight days ago, still couldn’t devise an offensive game plan to exploit the zone is perhaps the most promising sign yet.

Collins said he noticed Michigan making an effort to move the ball quickly during the game’s early-going, and made some adjustments to counteract it. The coach admitted he was expecting the Wolverines to “put pressure” on the defense because they had seen it before and were “ready.”

Yet, Beilein said even if his team had had a week to prepare for this matchup — they didn’t, and their two meetings with the Cats were split up by a home game against Minnesota this past Saturday — he didn’t know if it would’ve made a difference. Throughout Tuesday’s contest, NU physically boxed out, aggressively switched onto shooters and, when it was caught in outmanned situations, reacted quickly and smoothly.

Seemingly no Big Ten offense could’ve beaten it. And in recent weeks, seemingly few teams can beat the Cats, either.

“Our defense has really been impressive over this stretch,” senior guard Scottie Lindsey said. “We’ve really improved our talk, our activity, our hands, rebounding and stuff like that. … As long as we keep our defense up, our offense will come along too.”

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