Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Downright Defensive

NU 49 (0.84 PPP) – Illinois 43 (0.74), 58 possessions

I’m as prone to recency bias as anyone. Less than three weeks ago I said Drew Crawford was “possibly the best all-around player NU’s had in the last two decades.” That may have been an overstatement driven by his performance against Brown, but I still think he's NU's best player this year.

I bring up recency bias, because I know that many are basking in the warm afterglow of Chris Collins’ historic first B1G win. I’m also sure there are narratives bubbling over about NU’s much-improved defense, as well as using this game as a momentum-builder, confidence-booster, springboard, and a bunch of other nonsense. I don’t care about any of that. I don’t care about the team jumping about with the coach. And I don’t care much about “passion” or “energy” or “pop off the bench”. All this stuff sounds nice when you win, but it doesn’t mean anything. One win doesn’t change the fact that NU is still playing the worst basketball in the B1G.

Don’t get me wrong. It was great that NU beat Illinois. It stopped a particularly brutal losing skid. It ensured that NU will not go winless in the B1G. But ultimately it was just one win against an overrated opponent at home. This was the sort of game an average B1G team wins every night. We all know that NU is a below-average B1G team, so of course this win feels really good. It certainly was an overachievement based on NU’s body of work over the season.

The numbers are…interesting.

Scoring Efficiency
Four Factors
Misc. Components
Style Components
Point Distribution

Illinois' shooting was BRUTAL. Some of that is due to Illinois’ being the worst-shooting team in B1G play (yes, they have been worse than NU, though not by much). Some of that, I believe, is attributable to NU's excellent defensive scheme. It looked to me like the 'Cats were playing what I would call a 2-3 matchup zone with strong man principles. They've played a lot of man and some 2-3 prior to this game, I haven't seen them play this hybrid so well. It was impressive indeed, and Collins and staff deserve major kudos. As do the players.

For much of the night, Illinois looked frustrated and unable to execute how they would've liked on offense. 2PAs were frequently harassed, and this translated to a very poor 2P% for Illinois. Credit in particular is due to Alex Olah for his solid and disruptive presence in the middle. Sanjay Lumpkin, likewise, is worthy of mention, not least because he played 38 minutes even though he lost a tooth in the 1st half!!! Toughness! (See, I'm not completely immune to narratives.)

Illinois also shot poorly from behind the arc, as have several if NU's opponents. I've seen others tout NU's defensive 3P%, and while it IS good, I'm not ready yet to characterize it as anything other than luck. I've got more to say about that later.

Maybe my favorite thing about NU's defensive performance, though, was how good the 'Cats were at NOT fouling. Illinois' FTRate for the game was 9.38. That's unbelievably low. Illinois is below average overall and in B1G play in FTRate, yet it still averages 33.1 and 32.1, respectively. To put it another way, with Illinois' average FTRate it would have shot about 15 more FTs than it did against NU. At its average FT%, Illinois would have had 11 more points. The 'Cats prevented those points with great help and footwork on defense. That's awesome.

As for the offense, well it was just barely enough. I did think, for the first time in quite a while, that the 'Cats moved pretty well, both the ball and the players, but they didn't shoot particularly well, they got away from running things through Olah, and they needed a quick hot streak from Demps late in the game to secure victory. I suspect this type of performance (0.838 PPP)  will not be enough to win many more B1G games. Only three other teams have won a conference game when scoring fewer than 1 PPP: Michigan State scored 0.966 PPP in a win over Ohio State, Minnesota scored 0.965 PPP in a win over Penn State, and Iowa scored 0.943 PPP in a win over Nebraska.

On Point

NU was without its 3-year starting PG against Illinois. Dave Sobolewski apparently has a concussion. He was dressed in a suit on the bench for the 1st half (where he looked older than Chris Quinn), but I didn't see him in the 2nd half. 

In his stead, JerShon Cobb was NU's primary ballhandler, and he did an adequate job, though he did post an uninspiring 0.80 A:TO ratio. John Groce inexplicably failed to press or use any kind of trapping defense until very late in the game. Illinois saw great success with its press as the 'Cats continue to play as though they've never practiced a press break.

I believe Sobo is classified as “day-to-day”, and I suspect he will not be rushed back. Others have suggested that NU played its best game without him, and that doesn't bode well for his PT going forward. They may be right, but he is still NU’s best ballhandler against pressure. Other teams will surely pressure the ball much more if Dave is unable to play. Nevertheless, I wonder if his concussion symptoms might linger, making it unnecessary to bench him. I also wonder whether this is his last season as a 'Cat, but that's for another post.

On Drew

People continue to criticize Crawford for vanishing or not playing well. This is profoundly unfair. To wit: against Illinois he scored 26.5% of NU's points, snagged 20% of its boards, and posted the 2nd-highest ORtg on the team while playing 38 minutes. Still, I saw folks on Twitter say he was awful and absent. I don't get it. He has had some rough outings, but he has still been the best player on a bad team.

On 3PT Defense

Overall, NU's opponents are shooting 31.2% from behind the arc (64th nationally), while the 'Cats' B1G opponents are hitting 34.3% (7th in the conference). That overall number is quite good, but the B1G number is quite average. Neither number is proof that NU's defensive play has had a significant impact on its opponents' long-range shooting. Here's my take on why.

10 of NU's opponents have shot below their season average, one opponent shot right at its average, and six opponents have shot over their average against the 'Cats. There's no consistency, and the graph below shows a broad range of values. I wouldn't expect this much variation if NU's defense truly were a major contributing factor to its opponents' 3P%.

On top of that, there's not much reason to be excited even when NU holds an opponent below its season average for 3P%. There's no correlation between an opponent's 3P% differential and the scoring efficiency differential between NU and its opponent. Data points above the horizontal axis correspond to NU's wins. Basically, an opponent's 3P% has no bearing on whether NU wins or loses.

Moving On

NU hosts Michigan State tomorrow night. KenPom gives the 'Cats a 14% chance to win. I give them about 4%, but then I didn't think they'd stay within 10 points of Illinois, so my prediction probably isn't worth much. Michigan State is 3rd in the B1G in offensive efficiency, 3rd in eFG%, and 1st in 3P%. The Spartans are 1st in defensive efficiency and are adept at generating turnovers, blocking shots, and protecting the defensive glass. NU meanwhile is last in both offensive and defensive efficiency and does nothing particularly well on either side of the ball. Even with Michigan State's injuries this game looks like a tremendous mismatch.

I won't be able to use my season tickets for the MSU game, so if you're looking for tickets, send me an email.

Updated Pages

2013-2014 Efficiency and Four Factors, B1G Games Only (new page!)


  1. Great breakdown, as usual. Love that point about us "not fouling" as a huge factor. Is our defensive technique getting better or are the refs regressing in calling the rule book?

    Also I was guilty of harshing on Drew - but he is stuffing the stat sheet in other ways. Either way, we need Cobb/Crawford to be the 2 best players on any given night (or in the top 3 of all players playing) to give us a shot at winning.

    1. Thanks, again.

      I think maybe the refs have eased up, but really against Illinois the 'Cats just moved really well. Lumpkin has gotten much much better and has become almost as good at defense as his biggest fans think he is.

      It also helps when teams miss open shots like Illinois did (and MSU has done quite a bit of so far tonight).