Seven games into the 2015 B1G season Northwestern finds itself 1-6 and in a tie with Penn State for 14th-place. The ‘Cats are 122nd in the KenPom rankings, which places them above only 169th-ranked Rutgers among B1G teams. Obviously, this is not where Wildcat fans, coaches, and players want to be. However, if we move beyond the harsh binary wins-losses mode for evaluating teams, something stands out: NU has been close, very very close, to winning each of its past five games. The ‘Cats have come up short by an average of 3.4 points in those games and by an average of only 2 points in regulation!! The last two games, losses to Ohio State at home and to Maryland in College Park, were decided by 3 points total.
Many fans and observers take this spate of close games as a sign of improvement, and I think there is a bit of truth there. I have even seen some go as far as saying no NU team has ever performed this well against consecutive opponents of such high quality. Pronouncements of major firsts and historic performances tend to pique my interest, so I did some digging. Unsurprisingly, we are not witnessing anything new for NU hoops.
First, some definitions:
- High Quality Opponent – since the claim that really got me interested was about Ohio State and Maryland, I decided to use their KenPom ranks as a litmus test. They are ranked 20th and 29th, respectively, so I set 30th as the cutoff for defining a "high quality opponent."
- Close Game – I set the cutoff for end of regulation point differential at six points. That’s a two-possession game, and it seems reasonable to call any game that could have ended differently by changing the outcome of two possessions a “close game.”
Next, I looked at season records as far back as 2009, checking B1G and NIT games for stretches of consecutive close games against quality opponents. NU played two or more consecutive games against KenPom top-30 teams 15 times in those seven seasons, 10 two-game stretches and five three-game stretches, totaling 35 games (7 wins, 28 losses). Nine of those games were close (2 wins, 7 losses). In my estimation, the ‘Cats have had a least two more impressive back-to-back performances in recent memory:
- 2012: NU followed up a 66-64 OT loss at 23rd-ranked Michigan with an 81-74 home win over 3rd-ranked Michigan State.
- 2011: NU bounced back from a heartbreaking 58-57 home loss to 1st-ranked Ohio State to down 19th-ranked Illinois at home by a 71-70 margin.
Not only did NU play more highly-rated consecutive opponents in those matchups, it actually got a split in both of those back-to-backs.
Taking a step back, I decided to look at streaks of close games (or non-close wins) against consecutive top-100 opponents. NU’s six-straight losses have all come against top-100 opponents, and 10 of its final 11 games are also against current to-100 teams (Penn State sits at 102 as I type). That’s a lot of top-100 opponents in a row. Are we witnessing something unprecedented?
First, NU has played 16 different stretches of at least two consecutive B1G/NIT games against top-100 opponents since 2009 totaling 111 games (35 wins, 76 losses). Twice, in 2014 and 2011, the ‘Cats faced off against 20-consecutive top-100 opponents (15 wins, 25 losses). Needless to say, playing in the B1G is tough. Of those 111 games, 44 were close games (16 wins, 28 losses). But has NU, in that stretch, played five-consecutive close games against top-100 opponents prior to this season?
Yes. In 2009, NU played five-straight close games against top-100 teams winning two of them.Clearly that is a better performance than this current five-game stretch.
There are some other notable stretches in that time span:
- 2014: NU went 5-3 with one close loss in an eight-game against top-100 teams
- 2013: NU went 2-2 in a four-game stretch against top-40 teams
- 2012: NU went 3-3 with two close losses in a six-game stretch against top-90 teams
- 2012: NU went 2-2 with two close losses in a separate four-game stretch against top-90 teams
- 2011: NU went 3-1 with an OT loss in a four-game stretch against top-100 teams
- 2009: NU went 2-1 with a close loss in a three-game stretch against top-40 teams
- 2009: NU went 2-1 with a close loss in a separate three-game stretch against top-100 teams
What’s my point? NU is currently playing well, well enough to win even, against pretty good teams, but this is nothing new. If anything that has been the norm for NU hoops since the 2009 season. Not only that, but those other teams had actual victories, not moral victories, to show for their efforts. Real improvement for NU hoops lies in winning games.
Going forward, if you want to talk about truly noteworthy accomplishments, then here are some that would qualify:
- Finish .500 in conference play. Last accomplished: 2004
- Finish over .500 in conference play. Last accomplished: 1968
- Finish in the top half of the conference. Last accomplished: 2004
- Finish in the top three of the conference. Last accomplished: 1960
- Win the conference (regular season). Last accomplished: 1933
- Win the conference (tournament). Last accomplished: never
- Win the NIT. Last accomplished: never
- Make the NCAA tournament. Last accomplished: never
- Win a national championship. Last accomplished: 1931
Otherwise, it’s all so much déjà vu.
Enjoy this great track from Pavement, "Gold Soundz"