Defense is key for Northwestern

Northwestern shot very well from three-point range in a win over Illinois last Wednesday night and in the second half of a commendable five-point loss to No. 2 Indiana on Sunday.
Yet when you ask point guard Dave Sobolewski what he learned from the Wildcats' recent resurgence, he points to the defense, not the offense.
"If we defend," said the sophomore point guard, "we'll be okay."
Coming off of a dismal 20-point home loss to Iowa the week before, those performances against Illinois and Indiana seems to have buoyed the Wildcats (11-8, 2-4 Big Ten) as they head into Wednesday night's matchup with No. 12 Minnesota at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
They know that they don't have the firepower to beat anyone in a shootout. So their effort on defense will determine whether they can keep the score close and possibly pull off an upset over the Gophers (15-3, 3-2), who thumped the Wildcats 69-51 on Jan. 6 in Minneapolis.
On Sunday, the Wildcats held Indiana, the No. 2 offense in the country, to 67 points, 18 below its average. That came after Illinois managed to eke out just 54 points against NU on its home floor in Champaign.
Northwestern rallied from a 16-point second-half deficit to twice cut the deficit to five against the Hoosiers. Certainly, the Wildcats shooting 50 percent (5-for-10) from beyond the arc in the second half after hitting just 11.1 percent (1-for-9) in the first helped them mount the comeback.
Sobolewski, though, thought it was the defense that fueled the uprising.
"We stared defending really well in the second half," said Sobolewski, who managed just nine points and two assists in 40 minutes. "We went to the 1-3-1 and it was causing trouble for them for a while. They weren't getting the shot they wanted. If we can defend, our offense will take care of itself and we'll be okay."
Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody has been happy with his team's defense -- with one notable exception.
"We're much improved (defensively) over the last few years," he said after Sunday's loss to IU. "Now we have to figure it out offensively.
"What bothers me is the rebounding. Our two centers had only one rebound between them, and that's scary. They play, say, 35 minutes and only get one rebound. That's just not acceptable. I think we're defending a lot better."
The other factor that Indiana coach Tom Crean credited for Northwestern's run is learning to play without senior leader Drew Crawford, who was lost for the season in late December.
"They're playing really well right now," said Crean. "It's always tough when you lose a guy like (Drew) Crawford but I think they are really playing as a tight unit."
Northwestern was still adjusting to life without Crawford the first time it took on the Gophers, and the results were not pretty. Carmody had decided that he would employ a deliberate, slow-tempo offense to keep the score down. The strategy worked -- for a half. Minnesota held just a 17-14 lead at halftime, but the Gophers advantage in athleticism shone through in a 52-point second half.
Carmody has since loosened the reins on offense. Here's what else the Wildcats will have to do to reverse their fate against Minnesota.
Hold their own on the glass: Look, Northwestern is not going to outrebound the Gophers, who rank second in the Big Ten with a +9.8 rebounding margin. But the Wildcats will have to better taking care of the glass on their own end.
Minnesota pulled down an unacceptable 21 offensive rebounds the first time around. Trevor Mbakwe had five offensive boards by himself and a game-high 11 overall.
The Gophers wound up with 14 second-chance points -- too many if the Wildcats hope to pull off the stunner.
Have a better than average night from long range: Northwestern's performance from the three-point line determined its fate for the last three games.
Against Iowa, the Wildcats shot an abysmal 19.1 percent and were embarrassed on their home floor. In Champaign, they hit 53.3 percent and buried Illinois. Against Indiana, they dug a big hole by shooting just 11.1 percent in the first half but almost clawed their way out of it by dropping half their triples in the second.
The Wildcats are third in the Big Ten in three-point shooting percentage, hitting at a 37-percent clip. If they can do a little bit better than that against the Gophers they could have a shot at getting a victory. It would also help if they started the game on a roll to set the tone and grab an early lead.
Pretend it's a road game: The Northwestern team reportedly spent last night in a hotel room to simulate playing a road game. That's a good idea because there's no disputing that the Wildcats have been better away from Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Northwestern is just 6-7 at home but 5-1 on the road or on a neutral court. The Wildcats' two best performances of the season were at Baylor and at Illinois. Meanwhile, they are now 0-3 at home in conference play, losing by 26 and 20 to Michigan and Minnesota, respectively, and playing a lousy first half against Indiana before ultimately losing by eight.
Maybe the purple stain on the floor is throwing them off. Maybe the pressure of defending their home court causes them to get tight. Whatever the reason, they need to find a way to adopt the same "us against the world" mentality at home as they do on the road.