Minnesota trying to solve Northwestern’s unique 1-3-1 zone

Sophomore center Jonathan Williams is coming off a career game against Penn State last Saturday.

Zach Eisendrath

After snapping its five-game losing streak Saturday, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team will try and end another skid tonight.

The Gophers have lost six straight games to Northwestern but will try to end that slump when they travel to Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill., with game time at 7 p.m.

The Wildcats embarrassed Minnesota at Williams Arena just 11 days ago, winning 55-40. It was the least amount of points the Gophers have scored in a game all season and came largely due to Northwestern’s vaunted 1-3-1 zone defense.

“I think the 1-3-1 is the main problem with us,” said Minnesota sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala. “Once we figure out how to break that and really just attack their zone, I think we’ll be alright.”

The Wildcats’ zone defensive scheme spreads the defenders the length and the width of the floor during an opponent’s half-court set. The defense makes it especially difficult for the offense to get an open shot if it is not moving the ball, which was the case for the Gophers when the two teams last met.

Only if ball movement is present is it possible to get open looks. Minnesota moved the ball well last year, and Abu-Shamala was the beneficiary. He scored a team-high 15 points and was 4-of-4 from three-point range in the loss.

Abu-Shamala said attacking the zone head on with steady movement like the Gophers did last year will be key.

“Last time we were really hesitant,” he said. “We just need to go at them and be aggressive.”

One area that could help Minnesota this time around is the presence of a scorer in the paint. Without junior center Spencer Tollackson, the Gophers were nonexistent inside last time around against Northwestern (11-9 overall, 1-6 Big Ten).

But if Minnesota sophomore center Jonathan Williams, fresh off a career-high 13 points and 14 rebounds against Penn State, continues to produce offensively, the perimeter might quickly open up for the Gophers (8-13, 2-5).

Williams said tonight’s game should be a much better contest than the one that took place 11 days ago because of the simple fact Minnesota can’t play much worse than they did then.

“Honestly, I think we beat ourselves at home,” he said. “They’re a great team, but we needed to do some things better ourselves Ö now that we know their game plan and how they play, I think it should be a lot better playing at their place.”

Still, interim coach Jim Molinari is pulling out all the stops to beat the Wildcats, something the Gophers have never done during his tenure on the coaching staff.

Molinari has gone as far as consulting with Michigan State coach and close friend Tom Izzo about Northwestern.

Because the Wildcats’ 1-3-1 zone is so hard to simulate in practice, Molinari said he and Izzo joked every team in the league should play it because of its effectiveness.

And because Northwestern’s scheme is so unique, Molinari said it is no surprise the Wildcats have had such an impressive nonconference record in recent years, but have struggled during Big Ten play.

“We have to do different things,” Molinari said. “We went to Jamal (Abu-Shamala) last year and he was able to find holes. Hopefully, we’ll just have an attack mentality and we’ll have to hit shots.”