by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
After Northwestern’s 74-65 loss to Butler on Saturday night, I saw a lot of people on social media and heard a lot of fans complaining about what they think the “problem” is with Northwestern basketball. Of course, all college basketball fans have a tendency to place way too much on each game, especially games in early December, so this shouldn’t have come as much a surprise.
However, there seem to be a lot of misconceptions and misguided conclusions about the Wildcats this year. Sportswriters tend to jump to conclusions because, well, that’s what fans want. They want to speculate and they want to know exactly what the future holds. But right now, we just don’t have enough information to form educated conclusions about this team. When people jump to conclusions, they need to find a way to back those conclusions up, and start coming up with bogus claims. Right now, it’s time to address the misconceptions and misguided conclusions so we can get a better idea of Bill Carmody’s 7-3 Wildcats at this point in the season.
Misconception No. 1: NU isn’t running the Princeton offense well this year
This is probably the most ridiculous misconception I’ve heard from fans, and I’ve heard it quite a few times. In fact, this year’s team runs the Princeton offense a lot better than last year’s team. The Princeton offense requires a lot of passing and player movement, and gets players open near the rim via backdoor cuts. One of the best indicators of whether a team is running the offense well is assists. Northwestern typically is near the top of the country in assist percentage because of the offense it runs. Not only are the Wildcats No. 1 in the nation in assist percentage this year, but they are getting assists on 75.4 percent of their baskets, which is better than any other time this decade.
Of course, there are other things to consider when examining NU’s offense, but the assist percentage points to the fact that the Wildcats are running their scheme better than they typically do. That makes sense, because they finally have the athletes to do it (we’ll get to that later). Last year’s team struggled to find open cuts and ended up settling for three-pointers late in the shot clock — that is not the Princeton offense. This year’s team is running a much closer version of the offense to what Bill Carmody would like to run.
Misconception No. 2: This year’s players don’t fit the Princeton offense
We went over this in the point above, but contrary to popular belief, last year’s players didn’t fit the offense. First off, the Princeton needs players who are comfortably playing anywhere on the floor — particularly a big man who can hit jump shots. If the center can shoot, teams are forced to respect him when he gets the ball away from the basket, which opens up lanes for backdoor cuts to the hoop. NU didn’t have that luxury last year, but it does this year in Alex Olah. Olah’s shot is still improving, but he’s much more of a threat to shoot than Luka Mirkovic or Davide Curletti were. Some teams have played off Olah — particularly Baylor — but he hit some shots, which forced the Bears to play tougher defense on him, and that opened up the backdoor cuts.
Additionally, the forwards have to be extremely versatile and the guards have to be comfortable around the rim, and NU has both of those things. Jared Swopshire and Drew Crawford have struggled offensively as of late, but both have skill sets that fit into the offense, and that will show once they get out of their slumps. Reggie Hearn has done an outstanding job of scoring underneath the basket — he has the reverse lay-in down. These players fit the offense well, and just because shots haven’t fallen as much as people might have expected, that doesn’t mean there is something wrong schematically. Shots will start falling as this young team gains experience. As long as the open looks are there, the shots will start to fall, and the Princeton offense has done a good job of getting players open looks so far.
Misconception No. 3: The Princeton offense hampers talent
We addressed it in the point above, but the point of the Princeton offense is to get players open looks. In no way does the offense hamper talent. In fact, it’s a perfect way for talented players to put up good numbers, because it lessens the number of contested shots. It’s true that the Princeton is good for teams that don’t have that much talent, because it can help open up an inside presence that wouldn’t otherwise be available. However, it doesn’t hamper people who have talent. In fact, talented players can excel in the offense if they can properly cut and execute at the rim.
Misguided Conclusion No. 1: This team can’t shoot
Going into the year, we knew this team wouldn’t be as good of a shooting team as last year’s team, mainly because of the loss of John Shurna. However, that doesn’t mean this team is worse and that doesn’t mean it flat out can’t shoot. Most fans are having issues with the three-point shooting, and while the Wildcats have struggled at times from downtown, they haven’t been that bad. Last year, NU shot 38.6 percent from beyond the arc; this year they’re shooting 36.1 percent from distance. Once Crawford gets out of his recent slump, the three-point shooting will improve. What if he doesn’t, you ask? Well that’s unlikely, considering we know what he’s capable of. He’s shooting 39 percent from three this year, which is actually even better than he did his freshman and sophomore years. His junior year he shot 41.2 percent from deep, so it’s realistic that he can improve and reach that number. As Carmody said after the Butler game, Crawford has always been a streaky shooter.
Some of the younger guys have struggled with their shots, but that’s natural for younger shooters. The shots will start falling eventually, but it will take time. Tre Demps started to show flashes of his potential on Saturday, and we’ve seen Kale Abrahamson’s three-point shooting ability at times. The centers have also shown encouraging signs. Olah gets in good position and has hit some difficult shots in the paint. He needs to hit more, but the fact that he’s in position and hitting a few is a good sign. Mike Turner, meanwhile, needs to do a better job of hitting jump shots, and while he still has a ways to go, some of the shots have started to fall. With a young team, this is to be expected. Eventually, the shots will start to fall, especially since NU is getting much better looks than it was last year.
Misguided Conclusion No. 2: This team can’t make the Tournament
Here’s what we know about this year’s NCAA Tournament field so far: Indiana will probably make it and Texas Southern definitely won’t. Okay, maybe we know a little more than that, but you get the point — it’s impossible to predict how March will play out when it’s just 10 games into the season. There are actually reasons for NU fans to be excited about this team and its tournament chances.
First off, if NU can beat Stanford and take care of the rest of its non-conference cupcakes — not a guarantee, but certainly possible — the Wildcats will have a better non-conference season than last year. Forget the UIC loss — the selection committee showed last year that it will excuse a bad loss if a team has big wins. The UIC loss might not even look that bad by the end of the season from an RPI-standpoint, as the Flames just beat a good Colorado State team. If NU beats Stanford, it will have two wins that are better than any win it had last year, and the win against Illinois State could fall into that category, as well. Here it is laid out if NU beats Stanford:
2011-2012 — Wins: Seton Hall, Georgia Tech. Losses: Baylor, Creighton.
2012-2013 — Wins: Baylor, Stanford, Illinois State. Losses: Maryland, Butler, UIC.
If NU doesn’t beat Stanford, that definitely doesn’t look good for the resume. However, that doesn’t mean the season is over. Big Ten record is the most important part of the resume, and if NU finishes 9-9 in the conference this year, it will almost certainly get an NCAA Tournament bid.
“But this team sucks! They can’t go 9-9!” you might say. Well, in its current state, you’re right: 9-9 would be very difficult. However, this team has more room for improvement than any team in the Carmody era. Young teams can find their groove quickly, and if this one does by early conference play, there is no reason why 9-9 isn’t a possibility. Last year’s team was more polished at this point in the season, but it had a very low ceiling. It needed everything to go right in Big Ten play and needed good three-point shooting nights nearly every game.
This team has a much higher potential; the question is whether it can reach that potential in time. I don’t know the answer to that. Nobody does. That’s why, right now, nobody can predict whether NU will make the NCAA Tournament. Reserve your judgments for Big Ten play. But what we do know is that the potential is there for this team to drastically improve. That wasn’t the case last season.
Misguided Conclusion No. 3: If NU doesn’t make the Tournament, Carmody should be fired
Even last year, I thought it was a good idea for Northwestern to keep Bill Carmody on as its head coach. This year, getting rid of him would be absolutely crazy. College basketball is cyclical, and Carmody just brought in a class that will let him run his system better than he ever could before. You have to let him develop those guys and give him a chance to run his system far beyond when those guys are freshmen.
The common argument against Carmody is that “progress isn’t enough.” But you can’t base progress solely off results. Most fans will look at four straight NITs as small progress, and if the Wildcats get another NIT berth this year, some fans will see the program as stagnant. However, the program has made far more progress this year than any other under Carmody because it finally has players that fit the system. As they develop, NU will begin to see potential that it has never seen before. Why throw that away?
Teams fire their coaches way too early these days, and fans call for firings way too often. The grass isn’t always greener; in fact, it usually isn’t. It’s especially ridiculous to call for the firing of a coach who has just gotten the players to run his system. This has been more of a rebuilding year than most people anticipated, at least at the start. However, it’s better to wait to see the finished product — even if that takes a couple years — than throw it away and start from scratch.
Right now, this team is not NCAA Tournament-ready. Shots have to start falling, injuries have to heal, Crawford has to get out of his slump and Swopshire needs to transition into being more of a leader on offense. However, all of these things are fixable; last year’s problems were not.
It’s too early to predict whether this team will make the NCAA Tournament, but the Wildcats certainly have a better chance than most people are giving them. If these problems are still lingering on Feb. 9, then NU’s postseason chances for this year will be in serious jeopardy. But a lot can change in two months, especially with a young team, and the Wildcats will certainly improve. Don’t give up on this team or this system too quickly. There is still a lot of season left.