Men’s Basketball: The offensive tweaks behind Northwestern’s resurgent win over Providence


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Pat Spencer drives the lane. The graduate guard ran NU’s late game offense in the win against Providence.

Charlie Goldsmith, Reporter

Men’s Basketball

After Providence cut Northwestern’s 19-point lead down to five with less than three minutes left in the game, coach Chris Collins called a timeout. In the huddle, he told the players they couldn’t fold like they had late against Merrimack, like they had in a closed preseason scrimmage versus Vanderbilt or like they had in practice all summer.

If the Wildcats couldn’t score enough to pull this game out, they would have furthered the narrative that they don’t have what it takes to make baskets in crunch time.

This time –– against a Big East team that’s expected to make the NCAA Tournament –– NU converted down the stretch, scoring 10 points in the last three minutes. Heading into the Cats’ (1-1) game against Radford (1-2) on Tuesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Collins said he’s learned this team can be more competitive late in games.

“When things don’t go well, we’ve had to tendency to fold,” Collins said. “Over the past two games it’s something we’ve gotten on each other about. In the span of a 40 minute game, there are going to be runs. You’re going to get hit with an 8-0 run. The house can’t be built of cards at that point, and I thought we really rallied around that.”

If NU hadn’t faltered so spectacularly against Merrimack’s zone defense, the Cats’ win over Providence wouldn’t have carried so much weight. But the opener showed all of this team’s inexperience, and NU lost because it scored just six points in the last seven minutes.

In the Cats’ final 10 possessions against Merrimack, they had two turnovers, six missed shots and only six points. NU played extremely slow, taking over 20 seconds on most of its possessions in this stretch. Merrimack’s zone defense constantly denied graduate guard Pat Spencer the ball at the free throw line, forcing another play to hit a perimeter shot or pass through traffic to Pete Nance on the block.

Unable to get the ball to its two best scorers, the Cats passed it around the perimeter like a hot potato, waiting for someone to make something happen. They only ran one set play in the final seven minutes –– it was designed to get Spencer open for a corner three, but Merrimack snuffed it out and forced Nance into missing a contested layup.

All of the other possessions were similar scenarios, and Collins said he recognized how uncomfortable the offense looked. In a team meeting on Nov. 10, Collins urged the players to let go of any stress they were feeling.

“We were really tight in that first game because everybody wants to do so well,” Collins said. “They’re young kids that really haven’t done much at this level. How many of the guys out there have really accomplished a lot?… These are college kids that have a tough night sometimes.”

Against the Friars, the difference in NU’s offense was night and day. The Cats assisted on all three baskets that won them the game, often finding freshman center Ryan Young unguarded under the rim. Young had 12 points in the second half, all of them resulting from a teammate breaking down Providence’s 2-3 zone off the dribble and dishing the ball to Young.

Spencer was the catalyst, running a zone offense that looked completely different from the one NU used against Merrimack. Over the last several minutes, the Cats had post players doing a variety of things –– setting high ball screens and back screens for Spencer or running out on the perimeter and looking for a pass from the lead guard. Almost every possession looked different from the next, keeping the Friars’ defense off balance.

Up five with less than four minutes remaining, NU ran a play that ended up winning the team the game. Spencer ran from one corner to the other, using a double screen from Young and Nance to get space. After setting the screen, Nance jolted out to the perimeter while Young held his ground in the post. Nance got the ball on the right wing, surveyed the defense and passed it to Young on the block. Young made the shot and gave the Cats a seven point lead.

That type of play –– and the composure it took for Nance and Young to make it –– give Collins confidence going forward. Until last Wednesday’s game, he hadn’t seen this core of players respond to adversity and punch back after allowing a big run. That made NU’s first win of the season resonate a little extra with Collins and the team.

“It was definitely a big moment to have to go through that because we’ve struggled with that,” Collins said. “There’s a lot of guys that are going to be around here for a long time, and games like tonight are huge for their development.”

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