Wednesday, March 12, 2014

An Irregular End to the Regular Season

NU closed out the regular season on Sunday with a 74-65 (68 possessions) road win over last-place Purdue and did so in somewhat of an unusual fashion.

Scoring Efficiency


Four Factors


NU’s PPP was well above its average (0.935) and was its 2nd-highest in B1G play. In fact, NU scored more PPP in this game than it had in all but five of its previous 30 games). For the worst major-conference offense, this showing was downright explosive. Why?

The ‘Cats shot better from the field than they typically do, but that 48.04 eFG% was still below average for a D1 team in 2014. The OReb% was terrible even for the 4th-worst offensive rebounding team in D1 (yes, NU is 348th of 351 D1 teams in OReb%). What NU did right was not turning the ball over and getting to the foul line a lot.

That FTRate of 66.67 was NU’s 2nd-highest of the season. You have to go back the opening game of the season to find a higher FTRate. I realize that Purdue had to foul down the stretch, a fact that inflated NU’s FTAs. No matter. The point I want to make is that when you are a team that has great difficulty creating high percentage FGAs on offense, as NU clearly does, one way to make up for that is to get to the foul line. NU’s 1.45 P/FGA against Purdue was its highest in the conference slate, and it was due primarily to Drew Crawford and Dave Sobolewski combining to go 21-for-22 from the foul line.

Sobolewski Rising

Speaking of Sobolewski, take a look at the individual defensive ratings for this game. This is only for players who played 20+ minutes.

Dave Sobolewski
Drew Crawford
Alex Olah
Kale Abrahamson
Tre Demps
Sanjay Lumpkin

The lower the number, the better the performance. This rating comes from Dean Oliver’s Basketball on Paper, and you can read a bit more about it at Basketball Reference. It has some shortcomings in that it tends to assume more or less equal responsibility for defensive factors that are not easily attributed to individual players, but it is still worthwhile.

Turns out Dave had the biggest defensive impact in this game. Combine that with his 2nd-best offensive rating (132 to Crawford’s 142), and this is easily his best B1G of the year. I’m an unabashed fan of Sobolewski, but there’s no getting around the fact that he’s had a miserable year on the court. I hate to see Wildcat players struggle, so it was awesome that he had a great game to close out the regular season.

Consistently Inconsistent

Drew Crawford bounced back from an abysmal senior night to post his most efficient game of the B1G season. Like Sobolewski, I love Crawford (so much that I called him perhaps the best all-around ‘Cat of thepast two decades earlier this season). It pained me to see him struggle so much against Penn State, and I delighted to watch him dominate the Boilermakers on their home court.

The biggest knock on Crawford is that he’s an inconsistent player. I find myself bristling when others say that about him, but there’s something to it. Here’s his ORtg for each game of this B1G season.

L, 76-49
L, 74-51
L, 93-67
W, 49-43
Michigan St.
L, 54-40
W, 54-47
W, 63-60
L, 76-50
W, 65-56
W, 55-54
L, 53-49
Michigan St.
L, 85-70
L, 54-48
Ohio St.
L, 76-60
L, 61-56
L, 54-47
Penn St.
L, 59-32
W, 74-65

I think there’s a larger study to be done over his career, which I plan to do in the off-season, but the data set above indicates that he is indeed inconsistent.

The Return of Luck

Earlier in the season I wrote about NU’sbetter-than-average luck, particularly with respect to 3P%. That luck leveled out quite a bit during the ‘Cats seven-game skid. Against Purdue, however, NU got a nice boost from the Boilermakers’ well-below-average 3P%. On the season, Purdue averages 32.95% beyond the arc; against NU it shot an execrable 22.22%. That showing cost the Boilermakers about six points off of their average shooting. Here’s the updated 3P% lucky/unlucky graph.

Cool Story, Bro

Oh, the narratives swirling about this team are abundant and often amusing but rarely accurate. There’s a long post down the line devoted solely to the narratives, but I want to address a couple that I heard in the wake of this game. I’m paraphrasing.

“Winning on the road on your opponent’s senior night is a huge accomplishment.”

Five teams pulled this off in the B1G this season: Northwestern (at Purdue), Illinois (at Iowa), Penn State (at Northwestern), Nebraska (at Indiana) and Michigan (at Illinois). That’s a 41.67% winning percentage for road teams on senior nights. During the conference season road teams won 42.6% of the time. So, winning on your opponent’s senior night is no more difficult than winning any other road game in the B1G.

“Winning six B1G games with this roster is amazing.” projected NU to be 6-12 in conference and 14-17 overall before the season. The ‘Cats finished 6-12 and 13-18. also projected the ‘Cats to be the 87th-best team in D1. They finished 147th. This team returned three highly experienced and capable players in Drew Crawford, Dave Sobolewski, and JerShon Cobb. Crawford and Sobolewski each posted the worst years of their respective careers. Cobb improved on his injury-shortened sophomore campaign but failed to equal his freshman season.

The defensive performance of this bunch was inspiring but the offense was insipid. Credit is due to the coaches for the defensive improvement. Blame is equally due to the coaches for the offensive shitshow. They produced the worst B1G offense of the KenPom era and the 319th-ranked offense in all of D1 (that’s out of 351 teams!). That is unacceptable. The lack of adjustments, the lack of imagination, and the utter inability to adapt to the team’s personnel kept this team from an NIT bid at the least. The record may have been right around a reasonable expectation, but the actual performance was a major disappointment. Chris Collins didn’t inherit a roster of D2 JV players, and he didn’t over-perform.

Indy Bound

With their 11th-place finish, the ‘Cats have drawn the Iowa Hawkeyes as their 1st-round opponent in the B1G Tourney. There are twin narratives at play here. “Northwestern has momentum coming off its huge road win over last-place Purdue”, and “Iowa is trending down, having lost five of its last six games”. If you believe in such things (and you probably shouldn’t), you might feel pretty good about NU’s chances tomorrow. I’d like to point out that Iowa is still the 18th-ranked team per, that Iowa twice blitzkreiged NU by 26 points, and that Iowa is favored by 72-61 in this game. So I’ll be in Indy, decked out in purple and cheering on the ‘Cats, but my hopes for winning a single game, much less four in four days, are not high. There’s always next year, right?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Drew Crawford Deserved Better

Drew Crawford plays his final game at Welsh-Ryan Arena tonight, where he has been one of the top five Wildcats of the past fifteen years. From his arrival in Evanston, Crawford has been a starter (138 starts in 139 career games played) and a star. He was the first Wildcat to be named B1G Freshman of the Year. He played on arguably the three best NU teams of the past 40 years. Along with Juice Thompson, John Shurna, and Bill Carmody, he elevated NU basketball from the bottom of the conference to an annual NCAA tourney contender. I can’t recall exactly the last time NU played meaningful games in February and March prior to Crawford’s tenure, but it was at least 1999, possibly earlier than that. It’s difficult to overstate the impact Crawford has made on the program. He is undoubtedly a future inductee to the NU sports Hall of Fame.

He demonstrated growth from his freshman to his junior season as a scorer and shooter. Each season he became a more prominent component of the offense, and in his junior year he was an excellent offensive player and a 3rd-team All-B1G selection. Unfortunately, Drew got dealt a lousy hand these past two seasons. Last season should have been his swan song, and he should have been the centerpiece of NU’s first NCAA tournament team. His supporting cast was to be:
  • Dave Sobolewski: an experienced, former All-B1G Freshman Team at point guard.
  • Reggie Hearn: a tough and intelligent former walk-on guard who was surprisingly good on both ends of the court.
  • JerShon Cobb: a smooth and intelligent two guard who showed promise in two injury-plagued seasons.
  • Jared Swopshire: a Scout top-100 four-star transfer from Louisville who was a strong rebounder and defender.
  • Alex Marcotullio: a long-distance marksman with a deft passing touch and a pesky presence at the top of the 1-3-1.
  • Alex Olah: a true freshman center with legit B1G size.
  • Then there were Tre Demps, Sanjay Lumpkin, Kale Abrahamson, and Mike Turner to provide additional back-up.

Admittedly, this is not a roster you’d expect to contend for a B1G title, but it had the right mix of experience, intelligence, skill, and toughness to execute an offense that had become highly efficient in the preceding four seasons. With the coaching staff openly embracing a renewed focus on intense defense, there was ample reason to be optimistic.

And then the wheels started to fall off the cart, one by one. JerShon Cobb was suspended by the athletic department for the entire season. Sanjay Lumpkin caught mononucleosis in the pre-season and then suffered a season-ending wrist injury early in the year. Nevertheless, the ‘Cats opened the season 7-2, including a stunning win over Baylor in Waco that followed two very disappointing home losses to Maryland and UIC.

NU posted an average defensive efficiency of 91.8 in its non-conference schedule against teams averaging 175 in the KenPom rankings. (For reference, this year’s squad averaged 96.1 against an average opponent rank of 173). For the first time in years, NU had a defensive pulse to go along with an effective offense. But Crawford was playing hurt, and his performance suffered. Through the early season Reggie Hearn seemed to be NU’s best player. Following a tough home loss to Butler in the tenth game of the season, Crawford had season-ending shoulder surgery.

There were other injuries. Marcotullio battled a bad back all season. Hearn contended with an ankle sprain. Still, the team soldiered on, and after ten conference games sat at 4-6 in B1G (13-10 overall) with at least a shot at the NIT still alive. The 2013 team’s efficiency differential through ten games was better than the 2014 team’s (-0.097 PPP to -0.146). However, the career-ending injury to Jared Swopshire in that 10th conference game proved too much for the ‘Cats to overcome. NU ended the season on a nine-game losing streak. With it came the end of Carmody’s tenure.

New coach Chris Collins insisted his first order of business was convincing Crawford not to bolt for a sure-fire tournament team, and he was successful in that endeavor. The 2014 season has seen an impressive defensive improvement, and Crawford (like many of his teammates) looks to be playing the best defense of his career. And yet the ‘Cats are in danger of closing a second consecutive season on a nine-game losing streak. Crawford is enduring his worst offensive season at NU as Collins has produced the worst B1G offense in over a decade. It’s a shame. As well as the coaches have done in building a solid defense, they have failed miserably to adjust offensively to get the best out of their best players. Many criticize Crawford as inconsistent, and there may be some truth to this (that’s for a later, post-season post), but the entire team has struggled. Only Olah has shown significant offensive improvement, though Demps deserves a mention as well for becoming an almost average offensive player.

Crawford should not be in an NU uniform tonight. He should have gone out last year as a hero. Instead he has, like the fans and other players, suffered through a brutal losing season. He will not be the star of NU’s first NCAA tourney team. He will not make the kind of history he had hoped when he arrived at NU. Despite his great effort and great talent, he has been a victim of horrible luck and a rough transition from one coach to the next. But let’s appreciate him one more time tonight. He really is one of the all-time Wildcat greats.

For reference, here are Crawford's scoring/shooting numbers. All the dark purple in the 2012 season shows just how good Crawford was at his peak.