Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Let's Go Streaking!

Three-game conference winning streaks for Northwestern basketball are a lot like NIT bids: exceedingly rare and cause for celebration. Prior to this season, NU’s last three-game B1G winning streak was in 2012. The ‘Cats accomplished the feat in 2002, 2004, and 2009 as well (I didn’t look back farther than the 2002 season). As the Indiana Hoosiers roll into Evanston, NU has a shot at its first four-game B1G winning streak since 1967 (thanks, JohnRoby). In the intervening 48 seasons, NU has failed to win four total conference games 24 times! Most B1G teams would scoff at excitement over a potential four-game winning streak, but contrary to the public proclamations of NU’s athletic department and many fans, NU hoops plays a different game from its B1G brethren. So get excited if you want to, because for the first time this season there is a legitimate glimmer of hope for the future of NU hoops.

Coming as it does after a 10-game slide, this little winning streak merits consideration. How did it happen? It certainly helps that two of NU’s three opponents in this stretch are bottom-third teams, but there have also been some real improvements on the court. The chart below shows that the ‘Cats have played better on both ends of the court the past three games relative to their averages during the 10-game losing streak.




Offense

During NU’s winning streak, it has posted its 4th-, 1st-, and 6th-best offensive efficiency numbers of the B1G season. This production has been driven by increased contributions from guards and forwards not named Tre Demps or Bryant McIntosh. Each game has seen a diversity of above-average offensive players.

Iowa
Player
%Min
ORtg
%Ps
%Shots
Demps,Tre
86.7%
138.1
19.9
22.0%
McIntosh,Bryant
91.1%
127.5
25.0
24.0%
Lindsey,Scottie
84.4%
100.3
15.2
12.0%
Sobolewski,Dave
22.2%
119.3
38.5
8.0%

Minnesota
Player
%Min
ORtg
%Ps
%Shots
Demps,Tre
82.5%
120.8
22.1
20.0%
Lindsey,Scottie
57.5%
171.1
14.7
10.9%
McIntosh,Bryant
87.5%
128.9
25.5
21.8%
Law,Vic
55.0%
180.8
12.8
9.1%
Taphorn,Nathan
62.5%
101.2
22.5
14.5%

Penn State
Player
%Min
ORtg
%Ps
%Shots
Demps,Tre
77.5%
108.0
30.2
20.0%
Sobolewski,Dave
32.5%
179.2
21.4
6.0%
Law,Vic
77.5%
119.7
26.3
24.0%


Having Taphorn back helps, and Lindsey and Law both seem to be more comfortable. Having five non-frontcourt options who can contribute efficiently means the ‘Cats have wiggle room if Demps or McIntosh has an off game. It’s easy to feel pretty good about these guys right now, especially with three games remaining against pretty bad defensive teams (Michigan, Iowa, and Indiana).


Defense

NU switched to a 2-3 zone as its primary defensive set against Iowa, a move that flummoxed every Hawkeye not named Jared Uthoff (and Gabe Olaseni, but Fran McCaffrey was kind enough to give most of the minutes at center to the entirely ineffective Adam Woodbury). Minnesota fared better (posting 1.1 PPP), but NU’s offense was so good that night it didn’t matter. Then there was Penn State. The Nittany Lions mustered a mere 0.68 PPP and looked like a revival of Kevin O’Neill’s 2000 NU squad.

I have been lobbying for more zone from this team for a while now. NU’s guards and forwards as a group are not good in man-to-man, and the team’s best defensive player unquestionably is Alex Olah. His biggest shortcoming on defense is his speed, and the 2-3 zone allows him to stay close to the rim maximizing his value as a shot-deterrent and rebounder. None of NU’s last three opponents cracked 50% from 2P, and Iowa and Penn State were comically bad (31.6% and 25%, respectively). Olah’s DReb% and Blk% have been quite good since the switch to the zone.

Opponent
DR%
BLK%
Iowa
30.4%
16.0%
Minnesota
25.7%
7.6%
Penn State
17.8%
9.2%

Before you get too pumped for NU’s new defense-oriented identity, though, there is one thing to consider. A notable weakness of zones is the open 3P shot, and NU's past three opponents have launched a ton of 3PAs. Just look at their 3PA/FGA percentages in those games: Iowa – 38.7%, Minnesota – 43.1%, and Penn State – 49.1%. Fortunately none of those teams really lit NU up from 3: Iowa – 33.3%, Minnesota – 36%, and Penn State – 29.6%. As Ken Pomeroy has shown, however, defense has a much greater influence on 3PA% than it does on 3P%. It’s only a matter of time before NU faces an opponent that will make it pay for leaving the 3P line open.


Indiana

The Hoosiers might just be the team that will burn NU’s soft 3P line defense. IU is 4th in D1 in overall 3P% (41.2%) and 1st in B1G play (40.8%). It features five dudes with 50+ 3PAs all of whom are hitting 40%+. I suppose NU could go back to man-to-man, but that seems like an even worse matchup. I’m not sure NU has even one guy who could guard any of James Blackmon, Yogi Ferrell, Robert Johnson, or Collin Hartman; NU definitely doesn’t have four guys to do that. So expect NU to stick with the zone and just pray the Hoosiers have an off night shooting.

The plus side, though, is that IU is the only team worse than NU in B1G-only defensive efficiency (110.0 for IU to 109.5 for NU). The Hoosiers feature a pillow-soft interior defense, allowing opponents to make 54.3% of 2PAs!!! Hanner Mosquera-Perea is their biggest guy at 6-9 225, and he only plays 35.8% of available minutes. If ever there was a B1G game for Olah to dominate, this is it. It seems, though, that if Olah doesn't get going early the team stops making him a focal point (and he gets visibly frustrated).

KenPom currently projects a 71-70 IU win. Vegas has the Hoosiers at -2.5. I’m not that confident. I love what the ‘Cats have done the past three games; winning does that for me. But Indiana is a terrible matchup for NU. I have visions of threes raining down on the ‘Cats in a double-digit loss. Of course, I was starting to wonder if NU would win another game this year less than two weeks ago, so hopefully I’m wrong about this, too. If nothing else, the ‘Cats have this in their favor:









The Velvet Underground - "Beginning to See the Light"


No comments:

Post a Comment