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The B1G Rematch
Breaking down the keys to Sunday's Northwestern vs. Maryland showdown
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Back in November, there seemed to be little question: Maryland was the team to beat in the Big Ten. The pick of seemingly every coach, fan and media member entered the season ranked №4 in the AP poll. Northwestern, meanwhile, wasn’t even within Diana Taurasi range of an AP vote. An afterthought at best, the Wildcats had made exactly one of the past 22 NCAA tournaments.
Then, New Year’s Eve happened. Head coach Joe McKeown and his squad closed the decade by announcing their presence on the national stage — absolutely blitzing Maryland in Evanston by a score of 81–58. The Cats had already played well to that point, only losing once by two points to then-№16 DePaul, but their résumé lacked a signature win. The victory over Maryland gave Northwestern just that, and was a launching pad for a 6–1 start to conference play.
On Sunday, the Terps (15–4, 6–2) will have revenge on the mind as they host the rematch in College Park. With Northwestern (17–2, 7–1) entering the AP poll this week at №22 and Maryland hanging on to the №20 ranking, it will be the first ranked matchup between these schools since the 2014–15 season.
A Wildcat win would give them the season sweep — and thus the tiebreaker — over Maryland, as well as temporary sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. (Iowa would have a chance to join them in a first-place tie three hours later.) The Terrapins can move into a second-place tie with Northwestern if they win, and if Iowa loses later all three would be tied for first.
Needless to say, the standings implications of the game are enormous. Let’s take a look at what each team needs to do to win.
Maryland head coach Brenda Frese has modeled her defense this season after Chris Beard’s “no-middle” defense for Texas Tech’s men’s team. When executed, it’s a defense that can work wonders — Tech was an overtime period away from a national title last April. Here is what it looks like when it works:
Here Maryland defender Kaila Charles funnels Northwestern ball handler Lindsey Pulliam away from the middle, and towards the help. Taylor Mikesell is there for the Terps to force the tough two from Pulliam, whose miss leads to a Maryland fast break opportunity.
Now let’s watch what happens when the defense breaks down:
According to Synergy, Maryland presses more often than 85% of Division I teams, and in the Big Ten, only Michigan State brings the press more frequently. Northwestern, a team full of sure-handed guards, has the 16th-lowest turnover rate in the nation. The Terrapin press got the best of the Wildcats a couple of times late in the first matchup, but it was too little too late. Maryland may need to press with this much tenacity in the first three quarters on Sunday to avoid a repeat:
If the Terps allow Northwestern to break the press and get easy looks like this on the back end, however, Sunday may write a similar story as round one.
By far the biggest factor in Northwestern’s blowout win the first time around was McKeown’s patented defense: “The Blizzard.” Owners of a top-five Her Hoop Stats offensive rating, the Terrapins have broken the century mark in scoring four times this season. But The Blizzard overwhelmed Frese’s club, allowing a meager 58.
For a complete breakdown of The Blizzard, check out Daniel Olinger’s terrific piece. It’s a 1–1–3 matchup zone that flies around like snow on a windy day, generating turnovers and misses in the process. In their trip to Evanston, Maryland forgot to pack their winter coats, and The Blizzard disrupted them from the tip:
Use the shot clock
McKeown, now in his 12th season at the Northwestern helm, has slowed things down in recent years. In 2015–16 his squad was 17th in possessions per 40 minutes, but his teams finished outside of the top 200 in pace each of the past two seasons. That’s on pace to become three straight, as the Cats currently rank 287th in that category. It’s been a recipe for success this year — Northwestern’s offensive rating is in the top 50 (28th) for the first time in that span.
After that steal on the opening possession of the last game, it looked like the Wildcats had a runout. But let’s watch what happened next:
Burton sees that she doesn’t have numbers and pulls the ball back out. Northwestern proceeds to run its offense for 30 seconds, waiting for a Maryland mistake, until finally Ashley Owusu overplays a pass and Sydney Wood beats her for a bucket.
Transition is a great way to score when it’s there, but making a defense guard for 30 seconds puts a strain on opponents as well. Picking their spots will be an offensive key for the Wildcats on Sunday.
Running 30-second offense may be a winning formula for Northwestern; it certainly won’t be for Maryland. No one wants to be stuck in a blizzard for longer than absolutely necessary, and one of the best ways to beat The Blizzard is to beat it down the floor. There weren’t a lot of scoring highlights for the road team on New Year’s Eve, but some of the few that Maryland did produce came in the fast break:
Getting back on defense will be crucial for Northwestern in hostile territory. It will only take a couple of scores in transition for the crowd to get fired up and the Maryland momentum to get rolling.
Perhaps the one thing Maryland did well in Evanston was crash the glass. The Terps missed a whopping 41 shots, but they rebounded 19 of those, good for 46.3%. Their offensive rebounding rate of 41.3% on the season is ninth in the country. On their own floor, the Wildcats were able to get away with missing blockouts like these:
In the rematch, they may not be so fortunate. Being out of rebounding position is a natural consequence of a zone, but it’s one that Northwestern may have to overcome in order to steal a road win this weekend.
When Northwestern travels to Maryland on Sunday, two of the more unique defenses in the country will be squaring off. One team will have the confidence from the first matchup, the other will have the crowd, and in a game that could end up determining the regular-season championship, only one will come away satisfied.