coffey
Andrew A. Nelles, Chicago Tribune

Northwestern women’s basketball has not had the start  of conference play they were hoping for.  Sure, they beat Nebraska into submission, but that is their sole Big Ten win.

NU has suffered a head-scratching loss to Penn State (139th in RPI) and has now been beaten soundly by two solid teams in Purdue and Michigan State.

With Ohio State and Maryland right around the corner, it’s not looking much better.

The problems that have plagued Northwestern in its back-to-back defeats are not things that can be overlooked. Northwestern has struggled to get good looks, keep teams away from the basket on defense, and avoid turnovers, something that drove them to their great non-conference record.

It sounds bad. It probably is bad. Let’s break down some tape, y’all.

Northwestern’s small ball lineup is good, but also bad.

The stats on the contribution gap between Northwestern’s “Core 4” of Ashley Deary, Maggie Lyon, Christen Inman, and Nia Coffey and the rest of the team have been well documented.  Against Purdue, those 4 scored 69 of NU’s 71 points.  Against Michigan State, it took until the 3:16 mark in the 4th quarter for someone outside of those 4 to put the ball in the basket.

But while NU’s bench is weak (more on that later), having 4 talented players who can all score inside and out is terrifying to defenses.  So what Joe McKeown has done at times is take a page out of the Golden State Warriors playbook and used small ball lineups with the core 4 and usually Lydia Rohde, but sometimes Amber Jamison or Jordan Hankins.

The theory is simple: get a bunch of shooters on the floor to open up space for drive and kick motion. When it works, it’s beautiful.

Here, Northwestern is able to completely clear out the left side of the floor and get a mismatch for Coffey on a much slower defender. Help side defenders are locked up on the shooter (Rohde), and Coffey gets to the rack for an and-one.

More Coffey dominating. This time, MSU tries to chip in help on the drive, but in doing so, Ashley Deary has an unguarded corner triple. Drive. Kick. Three points. Easy basketball.

This is by far my favorite video of the study. It’s everything small ball lineups are good at. Northwestern gets out and runs, slows it up, finds a huge mismatch for Ashley Deary, she drives and kicks, Lyon sucks up a defender on the three point arc, and Christen Inman gets an easy shot. This is small ball at its finest.

The issue is that Northwestern can’t be on offense the whole game.

Northwestern’s small ball line up can fill it up, but defensively, it’s a struggle. That all stems from Nia Coffey quite simply not being a capable small ball 5 on defense. There’s an idea that any athletic 4 can become a center if you put 4 quick players around him/her. Coffey, for as great a shot blocker and scorer as she is, just can’t body up Big Ten centers.  She’s not strong enough to clash down low and not quite quick enough to consistently front the post. Jasmine Hines of Michigan State made that abundantly clear:

Coffey gets consistently sealed off, giving the Spartans free points. It doesn’t help matters that Ashley Deary, for as great a defender as she is, isn’t big enough to really bother entry passes. But it’s more than just Coffey who can get exposed. For example, here’s Maggie Lyon trying to slow down Hines.

It’s not great.

Lydia Rohde is in as a spacer/shooter, but she doesn’t have the lateral quickness necessary to stick with some of the wings in the conference. Maybe Aerial Powers  is an unfair example (OK, Aerial Powers is a really unfair example), but Rohde gets juked out of her shorts when left on an island.

So what do we make of this?  Northwestern’s best offense comes out of the open spaces that the small ball lineup provides, but so does its worst defenses. It’s a pickle, for sure. Unfortunately, Northwestern’s center position doesn’t make the situation much easier.

Struggles on both end: Northwestern’s 5 spot

It’s been musical chairs for Northwestern at the center spot.  Christen Johnson has started most games for Northwestern but plays just 11 minutes. Maya Jonas has missed time with injuries so she’s played just 11 games, but averages 16.5 minutes when healthy. Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, a freshman, plays a little under 10 minutes a contest.

The strengths of each are readily apparent.  Christen Johnson is the senior, the captain, and the most experienced.

PKA is a force of nature on the boards. Here’s her beast-moding on a missed free throw.

Jonas is the most well-rounded. She has legit center size and can move around a decent amount too. Here she is cutting off one drive and altering a shot on the dump off.

So that’s the positive.

But all three players have fairly significant drawbacks.  Christen Johnson isn’t exceedingly mobile and is shooting just 27.6% from the floor, most of those field goal attempts coming at or around the rim.  Here, Johnson does a great job fighting for an offensive rebound, but you have to convert it into points or foul shots (she’s taken just two free throws all year).

PKA is still learning the intricacies of basketball, having picked up the game on the late side. Turnovers have been a problem for her, as she’ll sometimes bring the ball down in traffic.

Sometimes it’s a little worse.

Sometimes it’s more complicated. This is a pretty excusable freshman mistake in truth. In a screen and roll, PKA could have either hedged hard, switched, or cut off the roll. She took the latter. Of course, when all-world forward Aerial Powers is the one with the rock, you have to close out. She doesn’t, Powers drains it. This is a mistake I don’t envision PKA making many more times, but this is what you get when you play true freshmen.

Jonas is the best option, and thus she plays the most minutes (although the injuries have been bummers). But she too struggles in rotations at times. A lot goes wrong on this play, and Maggie Lyon going over the screen instead of chasing her matchup is the genesis of the problem, but Jonas needs to come unglued and help out.

Not shown individually, for the most part, are the centers on offense. That’s because, well, they don’t get a lot of touches.  Added together, Johnson, PKA, and Jonas average a shade over 4 FGA/game.  Defenses recognize this and are free to help off of them as much as they like. This makes any defensive lapse they make all the more meaningful, and it makes the small ball lineups more intriguing.

If Northwestern isn’t going to lock up in either the small ball lineup or lineups with an actual 5, the lineup that provides the best offense is the better lineup.  That’s any lineup with Coffey at the 5. Is it ideal? No. But that’s the situation we’re in.

Northwestern’s core 4 need to do all the scoring. And it shows.

There is a whole heck of a lot riding on the play of Deary, Inman, Lyon, and Coffey. It’s probably as clear to them as it is to the defense that they are going to be responsible for virtually all of the offense. That doesn’t seem like a really good position.

It’s kind of like a pitcher who knows he’s not getting any run support. Every inning, every out, every pitch holds more weight because you know you’re not getting any help, so you press. It feels like Northwestern’s core 4 have been pressing.

For Deary, she’s been trying to do too much passing the ball. Against Purdue and Michigan State, Deary tallied 15 turnovers, 10 of them coming against the Boilermakers.  She’s tried to fit balls through tiny windows too often and it’s led to empty trips.

Maggie Lyon’s shooting numbers have dipped in conference play, as through 4 Big Ten games, the senior is shooting 33% from the floor and 29% from deep.

Coffey cashed in 33% of her long range shots in non-conference play, but is just 3-14 from beyond the arc in her last 4.

Coffey and Lyon both took shots they’d probably want back against Michigan State, like Coffey’s pull up triple over a defender 9 seconds into the shot clock.

Or Lyon getting a catch well outside her shooting pocket and then forcing an NBA range with Tori Jankoska in her grill.

But it’s honestly understandable. So much pressure is on those players. The cupboard is fairly bare behind them.

Amber Jamison is a decent energy player of the bench but is still a year or two away from being a consistent threat.

I’m super high on Jordan Hankins. She’s athletic, has decent size for a point guard, and has a pretty looking jumper, even if it’s not going in right now. But she’s struggling defensively. This is a simple high screen and roll, but Hankins can’t catch up and Jankoska dumps it down to Hines who gets foul shots out of it.

It’s easy to say that Joe McKeown needs to rotate more, but right now, he doesn’t have a whole lot of options. With Lauren Douglas out and Lydia Rohde cold, there isn’t a proven scorer on the bench. It doesn’t look like he has faith to turn lose Hankins or Jamison for 15 minutes, and that means the core 4 are going to get a whole lot of run, and It’s hard to blame him.

In conclusion…

It’s a scary time to be a Northwestern fan. This side of Maryland and Ohio State, no one else in the conference has 4 players as talented as Northwestern has at its disposal. But that doesn’t mean that Northwestern doesn’t have its fair share of problems.

A limited bench, a team built for small ball except for one crucial position, and a weakness at center have Northwestern on the brink of tournament contention.

Northwestern’s best win right now is UNC, who sport an RPI of 99 and losses to Pacific and Gardner-Webb.  The RPI of NU’s average opponent in their non-conference slate is 171. NU is 12-4.  They have 14 games left, 5 of which are against Rutgers, Maryland, and Ohio State, the class of the conference. If they want to start putting together an NCAA Tournament resume, it might need to start this week as the Wildcats go toe-to-toe against two top ten teams in Maryland and OSU.

To have a chance, Joe McKeown might want to draw up some more small ball sets on the white board.  It’s far from fool proof, and against teams loaded with studs like OSU and MD are, they’ll probably find mismatches. But Northwestern needs to get the ball into the hoop. The best way to do that is to space the floor, and if Rohde can catch fire from three, they could absolutely hang with the Big Ten’s finest.

The ‘Cats have a lot to work on and not a lot of time to get it straightened out. It’s going to be a white-knuckle ride to the finish.

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