Sunday, November 24, 2013

OOO-EEE-POO-EEE? Ewww is Right

NU 63 - IUPUI 61 (59 possessions)

On Friday night, Northwestern won a game it should have lost, and it did so in a way that is likely unfamiliar to most NU fans: excellent offensive rebounding. If you were to consider only the shooting numbers, then NU absolutely lost the game. To wit:

Shooting
NU
IUPUI
TS%
49.45%
56.85%
eFG%
45.69%
54.26%
3P%
31.25%
37.50%
2P%
45.24%
53.85%
FT%
83.33%
71.43%
FTA/FGA
20.69
29.79
P/FGA
1.09
1.30

IUPUI significantly outshot NU everywhere but the foul line. For much of the game, the ‘Cats man-to-man defense seemed impotent against the Jaguars’ attack. Meanwhile, NU’s three most-frequent shooters shot very poorly: Drew Crawford, 40 eFG% on 17.24% of NU’s shots; JerShon Cobb, 30.77% on 22.41%, and Dave Sobolewski, 22.73% on 18.97 %. As a result, IUPUI put up over 0.2 more points per FGA than NU. In a 59-possession game, assuming both teams attempted the same number of FGs, IUPUI should have outscored NU by over 12 points. Here is the primary reason the Jaguars did not:

NU
IUPUI
OReb%
33.33%
19.23%

Thanks in large part to 12 offensive rebounds, the ‘Cats got off 11 more FGAs than the Jaguars and were able to compensate for their poor overall shooting. Chris Collins said after the game that NU’s margin for error is slim, and it surely was in this game. NU made 24 FGs and 10 FTs. IUPUI made 24 FGs and 10 FTs. The difference? NU made 5 3Pts to IUPUI’s 3. There’s your 2-point game differential.

Aside from the solid rebounding, there were two other positives. First, the ‘Cats didn’t quit despite shooting poorly and facing their largest deficit at 49-38 with 10 minutes left in the game. Second, at that 10-minute mark Patrick Baldwin suggested going to a 2-3 zone. NU got two quick steals, and the tenor of the game changed. The ‘Cats outscored the Jaguars 25-12 in the final quarter of the game and escaped on Cobb 2PT shot with two seconds left in the game.

So, Northwestern beat a team that was #298 in the game day KenPom rankings by two points, at home. As others noted on Twitter, this would have been NU’s worst loss in eight years. Despite the three positives I noted, this never ever should have been a close game. There is far too much talent on this team to be in a dogfight at home with a Summit League cellar dwellar.


Tomorrow night NU hosts Gardner Webb, another KenPom bottom feeder (ranked 267). It’s another game that the ‘Cats should win easily. Nevertheless, I wonder if they will. The one thing I feel truly comfortable saying about this team, so far, is that I have no idea who they are. They have no consistent identity. I’ll have more on that tomorrow before the game.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Pasting at the Pavillion


Or...The Double-Sided Domination Edition

I was planning on writing about games three through six—a veritable troika of cupcakes—collectively. I hadn’t planned to do an individual post for the UIC game. But then last night’s game happened, and I think it merits recognition.

First, some team numbers.

University of Illinois-Chicago

69 possessions (W 93-58)

Scoring Efficiency
NU
UIC
PPP
1.35
0.84
P/FGA
1.82
0.94
TS%
70.24%
39.00%
Four Factors
NU
UIC
eFG%
71.57%
34.68%
TO%
18.84%
15.94%
OReb%
35.71%
30.19%
FTA/FGA
62.75
41.94
Shooting Percentages
NU
UIC
3P%
55.00%
38.89%
2P%
64.52%
25.00%
FT%
62.50%
57.69%

As dispiriting to a fan as the previous two games were, last night’s game was inspirational. It was obviously the best performance of the year, on both sides of the ball. The PPP and eFG% for NU’s offense were phenomenal. For context:

  • The last time NU put up 1.35 or more PPP was Feb. 9, 2012 at home against Iowa. NU scored 1.39 PPP and won 83-64.
  • The only time NU shot better than 71.57 eFG% since 2008 was on Nov. 30, 2010 at home against Georgia Tech. NU shot 77.1 eFG% and won 91-71.


The defense wasn’t bad, either:

  • The .505 scoring efficiency margin is the best since NU held a .622 PPP margin over SIU-Edwardsville at home on Jan. 20, 2011 in a 98-55 win.
  • NU has held only 11 opponents since 2008 to 34.68 eFG% or lower.


I have one quibble: NU’s FT%. The ‘Cats did a fine job of getting to the line (.6275 FTAs per FGA) but missed too many free throws. The D1 average this season is 68.6%. NU is shooting just 65.7% on the year, and its foul shooting against UIC was even more foul than usual. The ‘Cats are still leaving too many points at the stripe.

Now some individual numbers:

ORtg
%Ps
%Shots
eFG%
Pts
Pt/FGA
Drew Crawford
158
17%
15.69%
81.25%
18
2.25
JerShon Cobb
140
14%
11.76%
66.67%
8
1.33
Sanjay Lumpkin
140
21%
9.80%
80.00%
10
2.00
Dave Sobolewski
138
29%
27.45%
78.57%
25
1.79
Tre Demps
138
23%
13.73%
78.57%
13
1.86
Alex Olah
123
22%
9.80%
60.00%
10
2.00

Having six players with an ORtg over 120 is ridiculous. Normally, I’d say that your fourth-rated offensive player being the highest usage player is not a good thing. But then your fourth-rated offensive player typically doesn’t hit 78.57 eFG% and put up 25 points on 14 FGAs like Dave Sobolewski did. If Dave had any flaw in his offensive game last night, it was his foul shooting (3 of 9). Otherwise, he was on.

The other guys in that table had superb offensive games as well, and much credit should go to Chris Collins and his staff. The ‘Cats were better positioned, and they did a great job of working together to create great looks for each other. This team looked lost on offense against Stanford and ISU; against UIC they were very much found.

One more note: Crawford, Cobb, and Lumpkin were outstanding on the defensive glass, posting DReb% of 26.79, 54.95, and 45.71, respectively.

NU continues with another patsy (on paper) in IUPUI Friday night at Welsh-Ryan. Gardner-Webb visits Monday. I’m eager to see if NU can sustain this performance, build some confidence, individually and collectively, and head out to Vegas on a high note. They’ll need to be on to take down Missouri and UCLA.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Double Dip of Disappointment

Or…The Offensive Offense Edition

What a disappointing four day stretch for NU hoops (not to mention that excruciating loss to Michigan for the football team). There's nothing wrong with dropping a road game to a good Pac-12 team, but NU squandered a golden opportunity for a big road victory with an anemic offensive showing at Stanford last Thursday. Then the 'Cats followed that up with a brutal first-half no show against a below-average MVC team Sunday night. That abysmal first 20 minutes left NU with an 18-point halftime deficit to Illinois State, a deficit that proved to be insurmountable. Let's take a closer look at each game and see what we can learn.

Stanford

65 possessions (L 58-71)

Scoring Efficiency
NU
Stanford
PPP
0.89
1.09
P/FGA
1.07
1.51
TS%
48.97%
59.81%
Four Factors
NU
Stanford
eFG%
48.15%
56.38%
TO%
24.62%
21.54%
OReb%
28.57%
27.59%
FTA/FGA
20.37
55.32

NU rolled into Maples just four days after BYU torched the Cardinal for 112 points (!) on 89 possessions. That's a blistering 1.26 PPP for the Cougs. Stanford scored 103 points for 1.16 PPP. The current D1 average for the year is 1.02, so it's pretty safe to say the defense was underwhelming for both teams in that barnburner. In that light, it was not a stretch to think that NU might be able to make some hay on the offensive end in Palo Alto.

At first blush, this might seem like one of those "tale of two halves" type games. NU kept it close in the first half, outshooting Stanford 57.14 eFG% to 50%. NU went to the locker room down 29-27 and still very much in the game. But NU cooled considerably in the second half while Stanford caught fire, outshooting the 'Cats 63.04 eFG% to 42.42%.

Breaking down the first half a little further we can see that Drew Crawford was very much on, scoring 13 on 85.71 eFG%. The rest of the team was much less effective, scoring 14 on 42.86 eFG%. Furthermore, the Cardinal attempted 3 more FGs and 3 more FTs than NU, aided by 10 NU fouls and 10 NU turnovers. Crawford had a very poor shooting second half, scoring just 2 points on 12.5 eFG%. The rest of the team tried to pick up the slack, scoring 29 on 52.0 eFG%, but it wasn't enough. The game was decided in the first 10 minutes of the second half as Stanford's lead ballooned to 15 while NU's offense stagnated.

I thought that the coaches lost the game by making no discernible offensive adjustments. Neither Crawford nor Cobb found sustained, game-long success, and the rest of the squad showed minimal ability to create opportunities within Collins' amorphous offense. Drives often ended in turnovers, blocked shots, or simple bricks.

And yet, the middle of that 2-3 was extremely soft. Stationing Olah in the high post and running the offense through him could have created some excellent scoring chances for NU. Olah has displayed deft passing and decent vision, so playing inside-out might have made it easier for the 'Cats shooters to find good looks. Similarly, NU's wings could have cut hard to the block for layups or easy trips to the line (Stanford's FTRate was an astounding 55.32 while NU's was a dismal 20.37). Unfortunately, Collins stuck with his individual-oriented offense, and the scoring dried up, especially in the first 10 minutes of the half. One of the more frustrating sights of the game was Olah getting the ball a few feet off the block on the baseline, a move that unsurprisingly led to a quick double team rendering Olah paralyzed. This is particularly disappointing, because NU was in the game at the half, and some very basic offensive adjustments could have made a big difference.

Illinois State

ISU - 69 possessions (64-66)

Scoring Efficiency
NU
Illinois State
PPP
0.93
0.96
P/FGA
1.12
1.12
TS%
45.83%
47.84%
Four Factors
NU
Illinois State
eFG%
41.23%
45.76%
TO%
10.14%
17.39%
OReb%
23.81%
26.83%
FTA/FGA
47.37
35.59

Though the Stanford game only seemed to be a tale of two halves, the Illinois State game truly was. NU did next to nothing right in the first half, and ISU did very little wrong. The second half was nearly the inverse, with NU almost erasing an 18-point halftime margin. Sadly, the 'Cats came up short and lost 66-64.

Whatever Collins said to the team at halftime surely lit a fire, and it was encouraging to see the team fight back. Nevertheless, this was still a loss in what should have been an relatively easy victory. NU's offensive struggles in the first half are indicative of a team that is perhaps ill-suited to the coach's preferred style of play. Factor in the anemic performance overall against Stanford and it seems that the staff needs to find better ways of putting the players in a position to succeed. The second half against ISU was marked by personnel changes, with Demps and Abrahamson picking up minutes and Sobolewski, Taphorn, Cerina, and Olah dropping them.

Demps deserves special recognition here. He posted a 129 ORtg, which was the highest of any NU player in this game. He had 12 points on 56.25 eFG%, 0 turnovers, and 2 assists. If he can consistently perform near that level, then NU may have a solid third option on offense.

There will be games where this smaller lineup can be very effective. Most likely, the next three games (UIC, IUPUI, Gardner Webb) are among them. The subsequent three games (Missouri, UCLA, NC State) could be quite a different story. I'm very interested to see how the rotation shapes up and whether Collins displays great flexibility and diversity in his offensive game-planning. I would love to see him find better ways to use Olah on the offensive end.

Postscript on Defense

Defensively, NU continues to do a good job on the defensive glass. In 2012 Stanford snatched 41.18% of its missed FGAs. This year they grabbed a mere 27.59%. Similarly, NU allowed ISU to grab only 26.83% of its misses. As a consequence, NU is giving up fewer second chance points. Unfortunately, NU has shot too poorly the past two games for the solid defensive rebounding to make the difference. If NU is going to continue to shoot this badly, it will have to either grab more offensive rebounds or force more turnovers (or both) in order to create a FGA and/or FTA advantage over its opponents.