Wednesday, December 4, 2013

At the Quarter Break, NU Looks Bad

With a quarter of the 2014 season in the books, let’s take a look at how this year’s team compares to last year’s. The first, and most obvious, comparison is record.

2013: 6-2
2014: 4-4

That comparison, in and of itself, doesn’t mean much.  Using the day of game KenPom ranks for NU’s opponents, the average rank of the first eight 2014 opponents is 178.625 while for 2013 it was 209.25. This season, NU has faced three top-100 teams while last season it faced only two. The remainder of NU’s 2014 opponents has been ranked over 150, with four of the five being over 250. In 2013 the remainder of NU’s opponents was also ranked over 150, though only three of the six were over 250. Regardless, I think it’s safe to say the non-con slate through the first eight has been a bit tougher in 2014 than it was in 2013.

So what about the wins and losses? In 2013, both of NU’s losses were bad in the sense that NU lost home games to lower-ranked teams, Maryland and UIC. Now Maryland ended up being a better team over the course of the season than its day of game rank of 94, but the UIC loss was bad no matter how you look at it. NU did have one good win, over Illinois State on a neutral court. ISU was ranked 44 at that point, but ended the season at 72. 

In 2014 NU has one bad loss, so far, to 187-ranked Illinois State at home. When you consider that ISU was without its top six scorers from 2013, well it just becomes that much worse. To date, NU has no good wins on the 2014 season, and even one of the wins is actually that very rare “bad win”: the last-second win over 296-ranked IUPUI at home.

In my estimation, the records are comparable based on the relative schedules. That does not mean, however, that these teams are comparable. A look at how the Four Factors from each season compare will show that while the 2014 edition of the ‘Cats is actually on par with 2013 offensively, the 2014 team to date has been much worse defensively. This is quite the opposite of what I expected.

2013
Four Factors
Offense
Defense
D1-Avg
Tempo
63
65.9
Eff.
104.9
87.0875
100.4
eFG%
49.7625
43.1125
48.6
TO%
16.9625
20.7125
20
OReb%
29.8
28.7375
31.8
FTA/FGA
33.9625
29.1625
35.9


2014
Four Factors
Offense
Defense
D1-Avg
Tempo
65.75
68.7
Eff.
107.55
103.3375
103.6
eFG%
53.6125
49.2875
49.5
TO%
18.0125
16.5
18.4
OReb%
26.0625
28.575
31.9
FTA/FGA
46.05
49.2625
41.7

There are a few caveats. The Tempo, Efficiency, and Four Factors numbers I’m using for NU are not adjusted; they’re just the average of the first eight games of both seasons. However, they are close enough to the KenPom numbers to work (at least for 2014; I don’t have a historical record of the adjusted numbers for this point in the 2013 season, but I’m assuming it’s similar). The D1-Averages for 2013 are season-long; the 2014 numbers are as of today and should change somewhat over the course of the year.

Caveats aside, there’s a lot of useful information here. Let’s start with tempo. NU is playing faster than last season, but so is all of D1. In the context of all of D1 and of the B1G, NU is still one of the slowest teams in the country (319th out of 351 overall, 11th in the B1G). In offensive scoring efficiency, NU is doing better this year, but again so is all of D1. NU’s increase is comparable to the D1 overall increase. This year’s team is a noticeably better shooting team, something I was pleasantly surprised to see. NU is also getting to the line more frequently, even in the context of the huge leap across D1 in free throw rate. On the flip side, this year the ‘Cats are turning the ball over at a slightly higher rate and are actually rebounding worse than last year. All told, it looks like a wash to me. I’ve been very critical at times during games of the offense, but it seems that there isn’t much different in terms of results between this year and last. So, I’ve been wrong about that.

Now to the defense, which many expected (hoped?) to be the strength of this year’s team. By every metric, this year’s team is either even with or much worse defensively than last year’s team. Defensive scoring efficiency is average this season whereas last season it was outstanding through the first eight games. Defensive shooting percentage is way up, turnover percentage is way down, defensive rebounding is even, and free throw rate is way up even in the context of this year’s jump in average. The coaches have tried just about everything, too. They prefer man-to-man, but they have also employed 2-3 and 1-3-1 zones. I applaud them for their flexibility, but none of it is working right now. Raise your hand if you thought Chris Collins would be a worse defensive coach than Bill Carmody. Nobody?

This should give NU fans pause. To date, NU’s strength of schedule is 202nd in the country. The B1G is again the nation’s strongest conference, so the ‘Cats future is only going to get rougher. A quick look at where the conference stood a year ago today, at the end of last season, before this season, and today, is illustrative of what we can expect.

2013
2014
Dec. 4
year end
pre-season
today
Ohio St
6
7
6
2
MSU
14
9
2
3
Iowa
63
25
15
15
Wisconsin
10
13
22
17
Michigan
8
4
12
26
Minnesota
9
26
35
37
Indiana
1
3
25
40
Illinois
36
39
46
52
Penn St
131
148
82
73
Nebraska
179
130
123
110
Purdue
49
61
30
111
Northwestern
86
132
86
121

Most teams last season did not move too much from a year ago today to the end of the season. The average change in ranking was 16.4. Nebraska improved 49 spots; Iowa improved 38. NU fell 46 spots (yay injuries!). If you take those three teams out, the average drops to 7.1. What this says to me is that most teams are already ranked about right in the KenPom rankings by this point in the season. Hell, even the preseason rankings this season look pretty accurate. The average movement is 15.4 spots. Purdue has fallen a stunning 81 spots, while NU has fallen a very disappointing 35 spots. Take those two out, and the average drops all the way to 6.9. KenPom now projects NU to go 12-19 overall and 5-13 in the B1G. That is not good. I didn’t expect NU to contend for an NCAA bid this year, not with the new staff, but a shot at an over-.500 record and the NIT didn’t seem completely unreasonable. After eight games, however, we are looking at a team that is at least as bad as last year’s team, a team that was without Crawford and Cobb most or all of the season and that lost Swopshire for its final eight games.


Tonight the ‘Cats travel to Raleigh, NC, to face North Carolina State. KenPom gives NU a 27% shot at winning. The rest of the non-con slate consists of four winnable home games, but I would not be surprised if NU enters conference play 7-6. I am planning to do some player breakdowns before the conference season kicks off. I doubt I will do game recaps for all of these games, but if something strikes me as particularly interesting, I will work up a post.

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