While NU grows, its strategy shifts

Northwestern has looked different at times this season; working its offense at both a high speed and slow tempo. It has been a challenge for the young Wildcats as they continue to grow. As for head coach Bill Carmody, the key is to find consistency with strategy.

When Northwestern played Minnesota just more than two weeks ago, Bill Carmody changed his offense entirely.

Now, he's ready to do it again.

In the first half against No. 2 Indiana on Sunday, the Wildcats scored only 17 points. They failed to generate any offensive rhythm, and were often forced into low-quality attempts late in the shot clock.

"I don't want to say we came out flat," Carmody said. "But maybe some would say that."

The second half marked the complete opposite. Carmody changed his approach, encouraging his team to attack the Hoosiers. It worked.

NU posted 42 second-half points to challenge Indiana down the stretch. And this was no fluke. Several players appeared more comfortable in the freed-up offense. Jared Swopshire scored 10 of his 13 points in the second half. The senior found open looks from the perimeter and used his agility to score on the inside. It reflected a new mindset.

"I think we were aggressive," Carmody said. "We had a plan on how to attack their defense."

The Cats traveled to Williams Arena on Jan. 6 and posed no offensive threat to Minnesota. The slower tempo worked to their advantage in the first half, but Austin Hollins broke the game open from the perimeter. NU had no response.

Just a few games later, NU is beginning to discover its identity. Carmody pulled out all the stops against the Hoosiers – even switching to the 1-3-1 zone. And with his young players adjusting to the college game, a more aggressive strategy might help his team compete.

"(Coach) said after the game that we should try to play more like we did in the second half," freshman Kale Abrahamson said.

Abrahamson noted that the team often took field-goal tries with the shot clock in between 10 and 20 seconds, rather than settling for contested looks as the clock expired. He said the general principle behind the slow-paced offense involved keeping the defense busy. The longer they held the ball, the more chances they had of capitalizing on defensive mistakes – or so the logic went.

Abrahamson preferred the second-half approach, which increased efficiency and created better scoring chances.

"It was better than throwing up something at the last second," he said. "When we shoot in desperation, it's usually not the shot we want."

Dave Sobolewski, meanwhile, stressed the importance of defense. He said the Cats have been relatively strong in that department throughout the season. And his teammates agreed. The switch to the zone translated to a quicker pace and helped the team gain momentum.

"We (had) really struggled," Swopshire said. "Our plan was to come in and generate offense through defense."

Though that term is often used, it proved to be the case for NU. Midway through the second half, Swopshire stole the ball from Yogi Ferrell and then scored on the other end, which sparked an impressive run.

The Cats were also fueled by emotional energy. Senior Reggie Hearn has led the Wildcats with his consistent play. Others, like Tre Demps, are putting forth some of their best performances of the season. It only made sense, then, to speed up the tempo. The team expects that style to continue.

For the No. 12 Gophers to best prepare for Wednesday's game in Evanston, they should avoid tape from the last meeting. Just a short time later, NU is a far different team.

Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline

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