Tuesday, December 10, 2013

NU's Best Game? God, I Hope Not

Busting the Broncos

After Northwestern's win over Western Michigan, Chris Collins stated, “We played our best game." NU held the Bronco's to a mere .572 points per possession. If you're reading this blog then it almost goes without saying that that is ridiculously good. However, the 'Cats struggled offensively as well, putting up .833 PPP, their second-worst performance of the year. This apparently isn't that big of a deal to Collins:

"We’re trying to set a tone for our program. I’m in it for the long haul and we’re trying to set a tone. And the tone is: we fight every game. We had a couple games, and in particular on Wednesday, I didn’t feel like we fought. I’ll live with the results if we fight. We can shoot poorly or whatever..."

I suppose that's a fine sound bite of coach speak for those who get all twitterpated over "toughness", "hustle", and "intangibles". Unfortunately for that lot, games are actually decided on the scoreboard, and the only thing a team absolutely has to do to win is outscore its opponent. Part of that equation is making shots, and if NU shoots the way it did against WMU in conference play, there won't be many wins no matter how hard the team fights.

I want to look at the four factors for this game, which NU won 51-35 in 61 possessions.

Four Factors
NU
Western Michigan
eFG%
35.45%
25.61%
TO%
14.75%
24.59%
OReb%
29.27%
16.22%
FTA/FGA
32.73
60.98

It really does look like a dominant performance by NU's defense, except for that FT Rate. It is about 1.5 times the D1 average, though it is right at WMU's average. The Broncos turned the ball over more than NU's average opponent (16.5%) and grabbed fewer of their own misses than NU typically surrenders (27.3%). So, in both those respects, NU played above its average performance. The number that sticks out the most, though, is that atrocious 25.61 eFG%. That's a number that merits a bit more exploration.

Western Michigan
3P%
6.67%
2P%
34.62%
FT%
56.00%

None of those numbers are good, and they are all well below WMU’s typical averages (30.3 3P%, 52.3 2P%, 70.2 FT%). Holding an opponent to such a terrible 2P% suggest that you have forced its players into taking bad shots, but those 3P% and FT% numbers are much more likely due to abnormally poor shooting than to great defense.*

Here’s a breakdown of WMU’s 3P and FT shooters for the game. Each of these players shot below his season average behind the arc and/or at the line. I’ve included their pre-NU shooting percentages, their percentages against NU, the number of shots their averages suggest they would make, the number of shots they actually made, and the number of points they lost by shooting under their averages.

Pre-NU 3P%
vs. NU 3P%
expected 3PM
actual 3PM
3P lost
David Brown
26.79%
0.00%
1.61
0
4.82
Shayne Whittington
25.00%
0.00%
0.75
0
2.25
Austin Richie
44.44%
33.33%
1.33
1
1.00
Jared Klein
54.55%
0.00%
0.55
0
1.64
Tucker Haymond
25.00%
0.00%
0.25
0
0.75


Pre-NU FT%
vs. NU FT%
expected FTM
actual FTM
FT lost
David Brown
82.54%
66.67%
4.95
4
0.95
Connar Tava
64.15%
55.56%
5.77
5
0.77
Shayne Whittington
65.52%
50.00%
5.24
4
1.24

What you see is that the Broncos lost 10.46 points from 3PAs and 2.97 points from FTAs. That’s a total of 13.43 lost points that are primarily attributable to an off shooting night. The ‘Cats won by 16. On an average shooting night for WMU, this is a one-possession game.

Which brings me to my final point vis a vis the WMU game.
 
NU
3P%
15.79%
2P%
41.67%
FT%
66.67%
Block%
25.00%

NU also shot very poorly. From all three areas, the ‘Cats were well off their season averages (34.3 3P%, 47.4 2P%, 72.3 FT%). Even worse is that Block% number. NU’s season average of 16.2% is already 345th out of 351 D1 teams. This statistic suggests NU is taking a lot of contested shots, a sign of a poorly functioning offense.

So even though the efficiency margin for NU over WMU was great (.261 PPP), the sputtering offense coupled with the luck-aided defense makes it difficult for me to accept this as the ‘Cats’ best game to date. If NU continues to play like this, it might not win a game in the B1G season.



NU's Real Best Game...So Far

If the WMU game isn't NU's best, then what is?

The graph below plots the efficiency differential (NU's offensive efficiency - NU's defensive efficiency) for each of NU's games against NU's opponent's KenPom rank the day of the game. The trendline shows a strong correlation between those two values. In other words, the worse the opponent, the better NU's efficiency margin. Makes sense. Anything above the trendline is a game where NU outperformed expectations in terms of efficiency margin; below the trendline is a game where NU underperformed.
























There are a few outliers. I've called out three.
  1. NC State happens to be NU's worst game of the season. It was the 'Cats' most anemic offensive output coupled with a bad defensive game.
  2. Western Michigan looks like a great win in that NU greatly outperformed the expected efficiency differential, though I've taken care about to illustrate why this is deceptive.
  3. Illinois-Chicago is the game I consider NU's best. Although UIC is a very bad team, NU's fantastic efficiency on both ends of the court make this game stand out. As a reminder, below are the key numbers from that game.


Scoring Efficiency
NU
Illinois-Chicago
PPP
1.35
0.84
P/FGA
1.82
0.94
TS%
70.24%
39.00%
Four Factors
NU
Illinois-Chicago
eFG%
71.57%
34.68%
TO%
18.84%
15.94%
OReb%
35.71%
30.19%
FTA/FGA
62.75
41.94
Misc. Components
NU
Illinois-Chicago
3P%
55.00%
38.89%
2P%
64.52%
25.00%
FT%
62.50%
57.69%
Block%
9.68%
4.55%
Steal%
10.14%
7.25%








Moving On

Here's another way of looking at NU's efficiency differential. The purple line shows the efficiency margin for each game; a higher number is better. The red line shows the opponent's day of game KenPom rank; a lower number indicates a better team. The two plots track each other pretty closely.



















The same holds true if you just look at NU's offensive efficiency plotted over each opponent's KenPom rank.











You see a similar result looking at NU's defensive efficiency plotted over the opponents' ranks, although in this instance, in which the lower the purple line the better the defensive performance, the lines look more like mirror images.



















The simplest story here is that NU plays better against worse opponents, and it does so fairly consistently. Currently, WMU is the highest-ranked opponent that NU has beaten; the Broncos were 183rd the day of the game. NU has lost to every top-150 opponent it has faced. All the other teams in the B1G are currently in the KenPom top 100. The graph below charts the KenPom ranks for each of NU's opponents, including future games.. The starred games are NU's wins. The circles are the games KenPom currently projects as wins.
















The road ahead looks very tough. Contrary to Chris Collins' assessment of the WMU game, NU will have to play much better to earn future victories.



And, finally, just because, here is NU's KenPom rank from pre-season through today. Each point represents the after-game rank.




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