By Kevin Sweeney
Yes, I’m aware it’s football season.
Allow me, WNUR Sports’ resident college hoops writer and fanatic, to divert your attention from the impending showdown in Palo Alto for a moment and give you some early takeaways from Northwestern men’s basketball’s international trip.
In case you haven’t been following on social media, the ‘Cats headed abroad late this month, traveling to France and Italy to take in the sights and play four exhibition games. Trips like these are allowed to be taken every four years by NCAA rules, and with Northwestern returning less than 42% of its production from last season, this trip couldn’t have come at a better time.
Northwestern went 4-0 on the trip, playing against three professional teams as well as the Paris All-Stars. The competition level was mixed, with the best opponent coming in the final game against NPC Rieti, a second-division pro team from Italy.
Redshirt senior AJ Turner and junior Anthony Gaines did not play on the trip.
Only one of the four games was live streamed, the trip’s final game against NPC Rieti on 8/27. It was a fun game: Northwestern played fast, played together, and pulled away late for a 78-57 win. I broke down the film from that game to answer the big questions about the team as we get closer to the season. All video is courtesy of NPC Rieti on Facebook.
The Point Guard Spot:
Anyone who watched this team last year knows how much poor point guard play plagued the ‘Cats. Vic Law initiating the offense often led to lots of standing around, very little dribble penetration, and very few easy looks. It’s the main reason Northwestern was the worst offense in the Big Ten by a long shot and went 13-19 for the season despite having a defense that ranked in the top 20 nationally. So naturally, watching how the ‘Cats ran offense was the thing I was most excited about entering this trip. On paper, there were three candidates to start at point guard: sophomore Ryan Greer, freshman Boo Buie, and grad transfer Pat Spencer. Spencer started every game of the trip, but was always paired with another point guard and never was in the game without Greer or Buie in the game against Rieti, so we’ll consider the battle for the starting point guard spot to be between Buie and Greer. Let’s go to the tape, starting with Greer:
Greer started three of four games on the trip next to Spencer to create a starting backcourt. The stats paint a fairly ugly picture for his shooting on the trip, shooting under 30% from both the field and from downtown. That’s especially concerning given how poorly he shot the ball last season (31% from the field, 24% from 3). However, his best shooting game came in the game I watched, in which he looked a lot more confident shooting and attacking than he did last season. You would never have seen Greer pull up for three early in the shot clock like he did in the 4th clip of the above video, and he did a nice job in the 3rd and 6th clips of recognizing the absence of the rim protector and taking it all the way for the layup.
Greer’s decision-making as a ballhandler and creator also was lacking against Rieti. In the first clip, he properly attacks off the bounce out of the ball screen, but doesn’t recognize the defense collapsing in time and turns it over instead of making the skip pass to Miller Kopp in the corner for what would have been an open 3. In the second clip, Greer is attempting to break a fairly rudimentary man press, but instead of going to the left hand to easily cross the timeline, he closes himself in by trying to dribble up the sideline with his dominant right hand and has his pocket picked. You rarely saw him create good looks in ball screen situations like the lead guard in the Collins offense must.
To me, Greer looks like a glue guy. He’s a solid defender and leader, and playing with a wing who can create like Spencer (more on that later) is a pretty good match. However, he HAS to be a consistent outside shooter in catch-and-shoot situations to be valuable on the floor. He didn’t do that until game four of the trip.
The other option, freshman Boo Buie, is a JET. That’s the best way of describing him. For an offense that consistently looked to get work done early in the shot clock, Buie was a strong engine– playing with excellent pace and always pushing the ball. Watch the clip at the 35 second mark: off a missed free throw, Robbie Beran quickly advances it to Buie, and Buie puts on the jets to get Northwestern a potential fast break opportunity. Miller Kopp steps on the endline, but that’s irrelevant to the point: Buie was able to create offense from nothing just by beating everyone down the floor. Buie can give this team an edge in transition and is excellent at attacking switches in pick-and-roll situations.
“We haven’t had that element of somebody that can really create off the dribble, get into the paint, score the ball, find others,” Collins said. “His quickness was a factor.”
His go-to move, like you see plenty of times in the clip above, is the floater, a move we saw Bryant McIntosh go to time and time again in his in Evanston. Buie has excellent touch and is clearly very comfortable using it to avoid dealing with bigger defenders at the rim.
The biggest negative right now with Buie is creating offense for others. He averaged just 1.5 assists per game on the trip and struggled to make the reads necessary to be a full-time point guard in the Big Ten. The final two clips above highlight this best. In the first one, Kopp is literally begging for the ball, wide open in the corner. Instead, Buie gets tunnel vision and goes into the ball screen with Jared Jones. To make it worse, he penetrates too far before realizing he has no options. He picks up his dribble, eventually tries to find Kopp before turning it over. In the final clip, he takes the screen from Ryan Young and tries to force his way around the corner. This is a move he was likely able to make in high school thanks to his speed, but it doesn’t fly against more experienced defenders. He plows over the defender and gets called for the charge.
Strength is also a concern for Buie– he’s clearly very thin and at times Rieti’s guards had success being physical with him in the press. More time in a college weight room should help, but Big Ten teams won’t hesitate to rough him up.
Pat Spencer is Good:
The converted lacrosse player who has been projected by those around the hoops world as everything from wasted scholarship and gimmick to potential diamond in the rough got his first game action under his belt on this trip, and the results were about as good as could have been hoped. Not only did Spencer look like he belonged on the court against professional basketball players, at times he looked like the best player on the floor.
Spencer struggled from the field in the game we have video of, but shot the ball fairly well during the trip as a whole– 48.7% from the field and 27.2% from 3. His passing, which sources had raved about when he originally signed with the ‘Cats, was incredibly impressive, and he showed the ability to create space off the bounce while flashing his athleticism.
I labeled this video to make it clear to everyone what they are watching, since I’d imagine not everyone reading has a grasp on reads in pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop situations. I found nine situations in which Spencer made what I’d deem as a “finishing” read in a ball screen situation– basically, times when the play he made led to a shot or turnover. Of those nine (the first nine clips of the video above) Spencer made a good read eight times. I cannot stress enough how impressive that is for someone who hasn’t played organized basketball in four years. Spencer didn’t just make good reads, he made some GREAT reads. The wraparound pocket pass to Pete Nance for a dunk in clip #3 is nothing short of filthy. The skip pass to the opposite corner for Robbie Beran in the 7th clip is another high-level read that Spencer makes look easy. Behind the back? No issue. Reject the screen, then throw it back to the shooter? Done. That was pretty much a clinic in ball screen offense.
Spencer’s passing ability comes through in other situations than just ball screen situations. The “passing ability” clips in the above video show some really slick action– it’s clear that Spencer knows where everyone is on the floor at all times and is able to make quick decisions. Those are traits he likely developed while playing lacrosse. In my mind, he’s pretty clearly the best passer on this team.
I am not sure Spencer is ready for the responsibility of being a full-time lead guard– especially dealing with pressure. He seems best as a secondary ball-handler at this point.
Another area where Spencer needs to improve is his ability to finish at the rim. Compared to Buie’s floater, Spencer’s is far less comfortable. The release point is low (making it easier to block) and he doesn’t seem to have a ton of confidence in the shot right now. Spencer seems used to being able to use his athleticism to attack the rim and try to dunk everything– that won’t work in the Big Ten. Developing that floater will be critical in him being able to be a consistent scoring threat.
As of now, I’d have a tough time keeping Spencer out of the starting lineup if the season started tomorrow. Even if he comes off the bench, he should be seen as a key rotation player for the ‘Cats as we enter the preseason.
Miller Kopp Looks Like The #1 Scoring Option:
Kopp shot the cover off the ball from three throughout the trip, putting up huge scoring totals and doing so efficiently. Perhaps more importantly, he looked assertive and engaged on the offensive end, playing with a swagger that he didn’t always carry last season. Let’s look at the clips:
Looking noticeably leaner, Kopp looks the part of a three-level scorer. He got downhill when he needed to, with the third clip clearly the most impressive featuring the behind-the-back dribble and finish through contact. He showed a willingness to do his work early with a quick-hitter jumper if that’s what the defense offered. Kopp will never have high-level quickness against Big Ten athletes, so continuing to develop an array of crafty moves to create space will be necessary. Kopp has clearly made strides from year one to year two and seems like the safe bet to pencil in as the Northwestern’s leading scorer this season.
Tracking Pete Nance’s Improvement:
Formerly the best recruit in program history, Nance looked lost at times last season. His lack of awareness on the floor combined with his slender frame made him unplayable at times during his freshman campaign, but he possesses such immense upside that it’s hard not to still be excited about his long-term ability. In the game against Rieti, Nance spent time at both the power forward and center spots, playing as a perimeter big man capable of slipping to the rim. Let’s roll the tape:
Nance looked confident shooting the ball in this one and the numbers back up that confidence– on the trip as a whole he shot 8-16 from downtown. His release is smooth and quick, and his shot appears to have a bit more arc on it than it did last season.
Perhaps more importantly, he flashed quicker decision-making. The third clip, a beautiful high-low pass down to Ryan Young for an easy layup, highlights his improvement from last season in particular. The clock was winding down for the quarter, but rather than take a somewhat contested three, he was able to up-fake, put it on the deck once, force the defense to collapse, and find the open man. Nance also flashed his passing ability late in the highlights above, with touch-passes for easy buckets on the final two clips I cut up.
Defensively, Nance is still somewhat of a man without a position. He’s strong enough now that he doesn’t get completely overmatched by centers, but he isn’t well-schooled in post defense yet and often finds himself late in coming over as a rim protector. Meanwhile, he can move around and guard some on the perimeter (we’ve seen Nance jump passing lanes for buckets in the past) but isn’t quick enough nor does he have good enough footwork to be a strong perimeter defender. In addition, you’ll see in the next section that Nance got lost a few times on defense.
Overall, it was a positive trip for Nance, who has to take the next step for the ‘Cats to stay out of the cellar in the Big Ten.
Defensive Lapses– Especially Against Screens:
This was perhaps my biggest negative from the game I watched. Several times, Northwestern blew defensive coverages, and almost always due to poor communication.
Some of these aren’t huge lapses but were buckets because of good offense, others were flat-out coverage blows. Nance was involved on several occasions, including one time when he seemingly got lost on the floor and abandoned his man to give up a wide-open three. There were late rotations by the “tag” man (the player rotating down to help on the roller while his man recovers, blown switches, and a few other mistakes that will cost you buckets. I’m sure Chris Collins will be looking to iron these out before the season gets underway– that’s what these trips are for.
I’ve been asked by a lot of people what to make of the results of this trip. My answer: it’s better to win games than lose them. Obviously, the competition level was mixed. I don’t think any of the teams Northwestern played on the trip would consistently win Big Ten games. As a result, a lot of the statistics (especially counting stats) have to be considered carefully. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t take things from these results.
For instance: Miller Kopp likely won’t average 21 points and 8 rebounds per game this season. That would make him perhaps the most improved player in the country. Those stat accumulations don’t really tell you much about whether he’ll be good or bad this season. However, you can take from it that Kopp was clearly looked at by Collins as the team’s best scorer, and the film shows that Kopp has made strides in his game in becoming more of a well-rounded scorer rather than just a shooter. Plus, the fact that he shot 50% from the field and 48% from 3 is a sign that he can be efficient when shouldering the offensive load.
One major thing to note: the offense ran considerably smoother than it did last season. The ball moved crisply and quickly, the team looked to push in transition, and the team shot the ball fairly well as a whole from 3. These are things that have to carry over into the season.
Perhaps most importantly, the body language with this team was miles better than it was last season. Put on the full video of the game and you’ll see a constantly engaged bench that jumped up and down on every big play, even once the game got out of hand. You saw guys smiling on the floor.
“This is a cohesive unit,” Collins said after the final game.
These trips (and the extra practice time that comes with them) are meant to help build chemistry, and it seems to me that mission was accomplished.