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Northwestern Won’t Win March Madness, But Its Defense Will Shine Through

Northwestern Won’t Win March Madness, But Its Defense Will Shine Through article feature image
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John Fisher/Getty Images. Pictured: Northwestern’s Boo Buie.

Northwestern was supposed to finish 13th out of 14th in the Big Ten this season, according to the experts.

Year-after-year, I bet on Northwestern to win the Big Ten at exorbitant odds, watching that ticket go down in flames some time around the New Year. Somehow, this year, I passed.

Man, were we all wrong.

A season later — filled with thrilling wins, nail-biting comebacks, a win against the No. 1 team in the country and more — the Wildcats will embark on the program’s second-ever March Madness appearance tonight vs. Boise State.

That’s on the backs of a defense ranked in the top 15 in college basketball, according to the advanced metrics. KenPom regards the team as the 14th-best D in the country. As does Bart Torvik’s T-Rankings.

Bryant McIntosh — a player on the 2016-17 team that was the first in Northwestern history to make the dance — told the Action Network that the pivotal day came last June, when the team explicitly determined that defense would be their primary focus for the upcoming year.

While the 2016-17 had been solid on defense — ranking in the top 50 in efficiency — their offense was far more athletic, with several players that could get buckets at will.

McIntosh is now an assistant coach for the Wildcats, which will tip off tonight as roughly -1 or -1.5 favorites over Boise.

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A massive factor in instilling this newly minted defense mentality? Chris Lowery, a long-time Kansas State assistant coach who joined Northwestern in the offseason. At K-State, he developed some of the best defenders in the nation. In Evanston, he’s done a similar job.

Northwestern’s Chase Audige won the conference’s defensive player of the year award. As a cohesive unit, Northwestern was at times unbreakable.

And Lowery rightfully took home the assistant coach of the year for his efforts.

This defense, by the way, comes in stark contrast to Northwestern’s offensive output.

The Cats were 110th in offensive efficiency, thanks to being the 44th-worst team in the nation at field goal percentage.

Defense alone might not win championships in college basketball. I have no gripes about Northwestern’s longshot 400-1 odds to win it all this April. But defense? It can get you dancing.

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