Indefensible: more rantings about NU's terrible defense (with efficiency stats and partial preview of the Iowa game)

Earlier this morning, I was browsing BHGP (the SB Nation Iowa blog), and saw a link to some offensive and defensive efficiency stats for Big Ten play only on Basketball Prospectus (the link is here). So I clicked it, expecting to see Northwestern in the middle of the pack on offense and near the bottom of the conference on defense. Instead, the 'Cats were on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. I've decided to just copy/paste the entire chart:

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1. Ohio St. 11-4 63.5 1.07 0.96 +0.11
2. Wisconsin 10-5 57.3 1.08 0.97 +0.11
3. Purdue 11-3 64.4 1.08 0.97 +0.11
4. Michigan St. 11-4 63.4 1.06 1.00 +0.08
5. Illinois 9-5 65.0 1.03 1.01 +0.02
6. Minnesota 7-7 64.0 1.06 1.05 +0.01
7. Michigan 6-8 59.4 1.02 1.02 0.00
8. Northwestern 6-9 61.9 1.08 1.13 -0.05
9. Penn St. 2-12 61.1 0.98 1.09 -0.11
10. Iowa 3-11 61.5 0.94 1.06 -0.12
11. Indiana 3-11 64.1 0.94 1.11 -0.17

For those unfamiliar with more advanced basketball statistics, Pace is the average number of possessions per game, PPP is points scored per possession, Opp. PPP is opponent's points scored per possession, and EM is efficiency margin, or PPP - Opp. PPP. So according to these stats, which I have every reason to believe are accurate, Northwestern is tied for 1st (actually 2nd, I did the math to more decimal places and NU is ahead of Purdue but behind Wisconsin) in the Big Ten in offense during conference play, and dead last in defense. I knew there would be a discrepancy, but I didn't think it would be anywhere close to that big.

First, the positive. I've been saying all year that offense hasn't been the problem, but never in a million years would I have guessed NU was 2nd in the conference. Ohio State might be ranked higher had Evan Turner been healthy all season, but he only missed 2 Big Ten games, so that's not a huge factor. And while some have pointed out that Northwestern has been doing their damage against a soft Big Ten schedule (Purdue and Ohio State only once), they've yet to play the conference's three worst teams a second time. No matter how you slice it, the 'Cats offense has been very good this season, and Bill Carmody deserves a lot of credit for that, as some fans worried that NU would struggle to score 50 points a game when Kevin Coble went down for the season.

But as much credit as Carmody should get for the offensive success, he deserves even more blame for the awful defense. With the size and athleticism this team has, there is absolutely no reason they should be the worst in the conference. Look, I'm not saying Northwestern should be shutting people down, but at the very least they should be ahead of the 3 conference cellar dwellers, in particular the team I believe to be the smallest and least athletic in the Big Ten in Iowa. Yet the Hawkeyes have been giving up 7 fewer points per 100 possessions, a significant difference. Let's take a look at how the two teams compare at each position exclusively on the defensive end (this can serve as a partial preview for tomorrow's game vs. Iowa):

[editors note: apparently I didn't make things clear, as Iowa fans have stopped by to tell me how Matt Gatens is better than Jeremy Nash. Overall I agree with this, but I still contend that Nash is a far superior defender, and  remember these comparisons are exclusively on the defensive end.]

Starters:

Cully Payne vs. Michael Thompson

Payne has an advantage in size and strength, but Thompson has a decided advantage in quickness. Height also isn't as important for guards as it is for big men. Close, but I'll take Thompson.

Advantage: Northwestern

Matt Gatens vs. Jeremy Nash

Gatens is slightly taller, but Nash is much longer, quicker and athletic. Probably the biggest advantage anywhere.

Advantage: Northwestern by a lot

Eric May vs. Drew Crawford

Two athletic young wings of similar builds.

Advantage: Push

Aaron Fuller vs. John Shurna

Shurna is taller and longer, but Fuller has a big edge in strength and can match Shurna in quickness. Depends a bit on who needs to be guarded, but Fuller seems like a tougher player, so he gets the nod.

Advantage: Iowa

Jarryd Cole vs. Luka Mirkovic

Cole is much stronger, but Mirkovic has a big height advantage, which is more important for a big man.

Advantage: Northwestern

Bench:

Devan Bawinkel vs. Alex Marcotullio

A match-up of two slow, un-athletic 3-point specialists. Bawinkel is a bit taller, but Marcotullio has shown a nose for getting steals against mid-majors, which is more than Bawinkel can say.

Advantage: Northwestern

Brennan Cougill vs. Kyle Rowley

Both are fat and slow, but Rowley gets the edge defensively since he's bigger. Cougill would fit nicely into NU's offense with his ability to shoot threes, but that's another story.

Advantage: Northwestern

Andrew Brommer vs. Ivan Peljusic and Davide Curletti

A match-up of white stiffs who barely play. Yawn.

Advantage: No one

John Lickliter vs. Mike Capocci and Nick Fruendt

This isn't really fair because they don't play the same positions, but Northwestern obviously has a huge size advantage here. We're deep into the bench now though, so it's not very important anways.

Advantage: Northwestern

So Northwestern has a clear edge here on paper, were the teams both playing man to man defense and getting similar coaching. Unfortunately, Iowa is clearly getting better coaching, as despite inferior athletes they have been a much better defensive team. I'm not 100% sure, but I believe Iowa plays almost all man to man, while Northwestern plays a variety of zones that alternate between moderately effective and completely disastrous, with disastrous being more frequent. I'm not asking Bill Carmody for Purdue or Wisconsin like defensive dominance. All I want is Iowa-caliber defense. That's it. Were NU holding opponents to 1.06 points per possession, they'd have a +0.02 efficiency margin and most likely be at 8-7 and squarely on the bubble. Instead, they are allowing an absymal 1.13 points per possession and are much closer to the CBI than the NCAAs. Out of the 126 teams listed in the aforementioned article, only 4 are worse (and they are Air Force, Fordham, Providence and Rutgers). Carmody better get this figured out by next season, or it will mean another trip to the NIT.

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