This might come as a shock, but back at Welsh-Ryan Arena for their home opener, the Northwestern Wildcats actually played pretty good defense. The Wildcats, with a liberal sprinkling of many of the reserves, managed to hold Arkansas-Pine Bluff to just 45 points in 64 possessions, or .703 points per possession.
Honestly, that's pretty good. Yes, it's the best the Golden Lions have done all season, but it's also by far the best Northwestern has done. While I still have some gripes about the defensive effort, and we'll get to those in a bit, at least there was some good old fashioned effort out on the court at home.
Also, it seems like the Wildcats really are practicing defense, and will continue to focus on it with a long break coming up. Bill Carmody said that he'll use the next 10 days between now and the Wildcats' next game on November 29 against Creighton working on defense. Juice Thompson was a little more explicit.
"We're going to spend probably about an hour or so on [the match-up zone] each day," he said. "We'll definitely work on our 1-3-1 and get better in that. Mainly just defense."
While there wasn't much time between this game and Northwestern's last one, when it allowed Texas Pan-American to score 70 points, the Wildcats did look improved one the defensive end.
"I think our defense was a lot better tonight than it has been," Carmody said. "We sort of packed it in a little bit. We only had one practice last night from our previous game down in Pan-Am, but we just talked about it a little bit and guys watched some tape of some previous years and saw the way things were. And we have some work to do certainly in that area."
One of the things the Wildcats probably saw was much more aggressive on defense, while some of the bigs still failed to close out on three-point shooters, the Wildcats got five blocks on defense in this one game compared to four in the two previous games combined.
Drew Crawford and John Shurna both got their first blocks of the season against the Golden Lions.
"We came out more aggressive tonight," Shurna said. "Last game we gave up 70 points or something like that so I think we're trying to make defense a focus in each practice and trying to improve day-by-day."
The other thing that improved tonight for the Wildcats was defensive rebounding. While that's partially because Arkansas-Pine Bluff didn't have much height in its lineup, Northwestern had come in allowing opponents to grab offensive boards on more than a third of their missed shots. The Golden Lions on the other hand grabbed a much more reasonable 8 boards on 35 misses (22.9 percent).
Northwestern's next two games against Creighton and Georgia Tech will really provide a barometer of how far the Wildcats have come on defense. Neither is an outstanding offensive team, but if the Wildcats can hold up against those two squads then there will be some hope moving forward.
Players that performed well on defense tonight:
- John Shurna - Much more active, got out on shooters, made plays in the post.
- JerShon Cobb - If he can hold onto more of the turnovers he forces he'll be amazing, but a team-high 8 rebounds and 3 steals shows how active he was. Also, he got on the floor multiple times. His hustle is really admirable.
- Mike Capocci - He was one of the first guys off the bench and provided 2 steals, 2 boards and a block in 16 minutes of action. The traditional stats don't really capture how disruptive he was at times on the wing.
Players that still need some work:
- Luka Mirkovic - Mirkovic committed a few silly fouls and still didn't really take advantage of his size. Even though he had 6 boards, a block and 2 steals, his post defense was underwhelming and he failed to close out on three-point shooters in rotations.
- Davide Curletti - This seemed to be a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Curletti also didn't close out aggressively enough, but beyond that he committed four fouls .
You'll notice that both centers are on the "need work" list. Dominic Moore, a 6'10 senior center, scored 12 points in 40 minutes for Arkansas-Pine Bluff, mostly against Curletti and Mirkovic. The Wildcats really need to bottle that up before Big Ten play begins or JaJuan Johnson, Jared Sullinger and the rest of the conference are going to feast on the weak interior of the Wildcats.