Transition defense wrecks NU effort

Michael Hlebasko reflects on the Cats' terrible transition defense.

There were always going to be growing pains for Northwestern at the start of the Chris Collins era, but we didn't expect them to be quite this bad.

The Cats lost to Illinois State 68-64 and trailed for the last 31 minutes of the game. They shot 37% from the field, 28% from three, and 63% from the line. All three of those numbers would be bad on their own, as a combination they are downright macabre. The ongoing, and thus far rocky, transition to Chris Collins's offense will get a lot of the attention, but the defense was just as worrying.

Northwestern is not a team that attacks the rim, and they don't rebound particularly well on the offensive end. This makes their complete inability to get back on defense against Illinois State inexcusable. The Wildcats gave up 17 fast break points, a number that should have been higher, and would have been had Illinois State not squandered several opportunities. The last man back on defense is traditionally the point guard unless he attacks the rim, and Dave Sobolewski and Tre Demps were both beat up the court by multiple Illinois State players on too many occasions.

If Sobolewski or Demps is out of position or too athletically limited to beat players back, it will have to be a team effort for the Wildcats moving forward. It doesn't help, either, that Nikola Cerina and Alex Olah combined for just five defensive rebounds on the night. Too often, basketball analysts offer the lazy observation that a team winning "just wanted it more" with no evidence other than their lead, tonight it was evident almost every time the Redbirds shifted from defense to offense that they wanted it more than the Wildcats.

The interior defense was nearly as bad. Nikola Cerina, and to a greater extent Alex Olah, were repeatedly beaten down low by Illinois State players without putting up much resistance. With all due respect to Reggie Lynch, he wasn't exactly showing off a Gasol-esque array of post moves, yet he had several open layups. Olah and Cerina often got beat for buckets without having to face any real post move or even compelling head fakes. If the traffic cone interior defense doesn't improve, big men will feast on the Wildcats in conference play even more than they have in the past.

It was a tough night in Evanston for sure. Wildcats fans shouldn't lose too much sleep over the loss; this year's team was always dealing with a low talent level and several fundamental flaws. It was a bad loss, with a bad performance to match, but there is room for Northwestern to improve even with its low talent level. The transition defense can improve greatly with some more effort and focus, and Collins and his staff should be able to get creative with their schemes to get some off-ball help for Cerina and Olah.

The defense could and should get better moving forward, but the loss tonight was a just reward for the Wildcats' abominable defensive effort.


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