Northwestern closed out its nonconference schedule 9-4. I had hoped for 10-3 or better, so that finish is a bit disappointing. The offense has improved a bit over 2014 (team ORtg of 99.5/185th in D1 up from 96.3/309th) while the defense has regressed (team DRtg of 97.4/108th in D1 down from 94.2/14th), leaving the ‘Cats at 137th in the Pomeroy rankings, 17 slots lower than last year’s squad was at the opening of B1G play. NU enters conference play ranked 13th in the conference.
The good news is that the B1G looks much softer this year. The bad news is that so does NU. More good news is that of the top 5 teams in the B1G (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State, Maryland, and Minnesota), NU only has to play Wisconsin and MSU twice. More bad news is that NU plays its most beatable opponent, Rutgers, only once and on the road. KenPom.com projects a 5-13 record in conference play with the likeliest wins being: Purdue (home), Penn State (home), Michigan (home), Rutgers (road), Indiana (home), Illinois (home), and Iowa (home). Pomeroy’s projections give NU at least at 37% chance in each of those games, but NU’s maximum win probability in any of those games is still only 51%. The rest of the schedule is much less amenable. This means the ‘Cats are poised to secure the first 13th or 14th place finish in B1G history. (See Carmody Court for more on this.)
Nevertheless, there are ways that NU could improve in conference play and make a push for the CBI or even the NIT. Opportunities exist on both ends of the court to make stylistic adjustments that would boost the ‘Cats’ chances to play winning basketball.
NU does two things well on defense: it holds opponents to a low eFG% (90th in D1) and keeps them off the offensive glass (43rd in D1). Despite being slightly better in raw terms, that eFG% ranks lower than 2014 when the ‘Cats were 38th nationally. The defensive rebounding is up in raw terms and in ranking from 134th in 2014. Beyond that, NU is slightly above average in its defensive free throw rate and well below average in forcing turnovers just like in 2014.
In 2014 the ‘Cats were extremely lucky in both 3P% and FT% defense, ranking 41st and 24th nationally, respectively. Their FT% luck has extended into 2015 ranking 34th nationally; that may not hold up in conference play as all of NU’s opponents save for MSU and Minnesota are average or above in FT%. The ‘Cats’ 3P% defense luck, however, has run out. NU now ranks 248th nationally compared to 2014. NU benefited greatly from defensive 3P% luck in 5 of its 6 B1G wins in 2014 (where its opponents shot 10% points or more lower than their season averages); that seems unlikely to happen again in 2015. So, then, what to do?
Play More Zone
Or play any zone for that matter. NU is terrible at getting steals, ranking 345th out of 351 teams. Adding a 2-3 or 1-3-1 to the defensive arsenal would generate more steals which would generate easy points (when I get to the offensive section of this post you’ll see how). Yes, there is the obvious risk of giving up more offensive rebounds, but the correlation between steal rate and opponents’ OReb% is slight, and I suspect the trade-off would be worth it.
Another benefit of mixing in more zone defense would be keeping Alex Olah in the paint where he is much more effective. With rangy, athletic forwards like Vic Law, Sanjay Lumpkin, Nate Taphorn, and Gavin Skelly, NU could better neutralize bigs who play on the perimeter than it currently does with Olah stepping outside in its man defense.
Beyond playing more zone, NU’s best chances for defensive improvement in conference play depend on better individual play (proper position & footwork, especially staying in front of ball handlers, and better reaction time on rotations) which is conceivably possible, as well as improved luck in defensive 3P% and continued luck in defensive FT% both of which seem unlikely. The ‘Cats are already excellent in 2P% defense, ranking 37th nationally, so improvement in that area also seems unlikely. In any case the chances for defensive improvement without some degree of strategic or stylistic shift are slight.
There is good news about NU’s offense in 2015. Through the nonconference slate, NU’s AdjO rating is 99.6 which is virtually equivalent to the D1 average of 100.0 and ranked 182nd nationally. That is far better than 2014’s numbers of 96.3 (against an average of 104.3) and 309th. There’s also some bad news. This year’s nonconference strength of schedule is 334th compared to 271st last year, so NU’s offensive improvement has come at the expense of some rancid teams. While I understand that AdjO rating does compensate for level of competition, attempting to project a team’s offensive efficiency against an average D1 opponent, NU won’t be facing average competition in B1G play.
The ‘Cats have beaten one team with a KenPom overall ranking better than any B1G team: Western Michigan is ranked slightly higher than Rutgers. Furthermore, the ‘Cats have beaten one team with an AdjD ranking better than any B1G team: Elon is ranked higher than Indiana. So while the B1G might be considerably worse overall than in the recent past, NU has struggled offensively against comparable nonconference competition. Why is that?
Poor Shot Selection
While NU is an average 2P% shooting team at this point, it still takes far too many 2P jump shots and shoots very poorly when it does. The fact that NU hits more of its 3P shots than its 2P jumpers should be all the evidence necessary for the coaches to direct players not to shoot that damned 2P jumper.
On an individual basis, only Lumpkin and Taphorn are good 2P% jump shooters, and they only have a combined 8 attempts. Meanwhile, NU’s top four players in terms of FGAs (Tre Demps, Bryant McIntosh, Olah, and Law) have combined to take 182 2P jumpers making just 32.95% of those shots. Yuck. That has to stop. Of particular concern to me is the baseline jumper that Olah often gets off the pick and roll. That’s obviously a designed option in the offense, and it’s awful.
Meanwhile, every player with at least 10 FGAs is hitting over 50% at the rim.
Additionally, there are five ‘Cats hitting 39% or better behind the arc.
If NU embraced the Houston Rockets’ approach and emphasized the 3P shot (with its best shooters, of course) and shots at the rim, it could greatly improve its offensive efficiency. That would require at least one more major change.
Shot Distribution & Minutes Distribution
Demps needs to play fewer minutes and take fewer shots. He is second in minutes and first in FGAs on the team fourth in ORtg of the five highest minutes regulars. He is a major drag on the team’s offensive efficiency. Chris Collins would do well to give more of Demps’s minutes (and shots) to Lindsey, Taphorn, and Lumpkin.
In addition to drastically cutting down on his midrange jumpers, Law should not be taking 3P shots. Neither should Demps, but as noted before I’d be thrilled if his attempts dwindled dramatically.
I did not think I would say this, but NU needs to push the ball up the court more. Turns out that NU has the highest eFG% in the B1G on fast breaks coming from steals but the lowest percentage of it FGAs come off of steals. This links back to my suggestion that NU should play more zone and generate more turnovers.
Furthermore, NU needs to look for shots earlier in the clock. Only 12.4% of its FGAs come in the last 5 seconds of the shot clock, but it also hits only 33.5% of them in eFG%.
Crash the Offensive Glass
Outside of transition, NU’s best shooting comes on putbacks. Why not let the ball fly from 3P and send guys like Olah, Law, Lumpkin, and Taphorn hard to the glass?
The KenPom projection of 5-13 seems about right, but without some of the above adjustments I forecast 4-14 and 13th place tie with Rutgers. In its next five games, NU is 93% likely to go anywhere from 0-5 to 2-3. I’ll go with 1-4.