Northwestern Basketball: Still Terrible

Ethan Miller

NU opened Big Ten play by losing to Wisconsin, the first of what surely will be many embarrassing losses.

Northwestern opened Big Ten play the other day at home against Wisconsin, and they were annihilated. Wisconsin won the game by 27, and it wasn't even that close. The only bright spot for NU was Alex Olah scoring a career high 23 points, but Olah also allowed some guy named Nigel Hayes for Wisconsin to score a career high 19 on the other end. Besides Olah on offense, everything else was brutal. The defense, which had been the bright spot all season, let Wisconsin get whatever they wanted, and the offense was horrible as usual.

In fact, Northwestern's offense is threatening to be historically bad in terms of offensive efficiency. Right now Northwestern's offense is ranked 262nd nationally on KenPom.com, which would be the second worst ranking for a Big Ten team in the twelve years that site has data for: the only team that was worse was 2003-04 Penn State, who finished 268th. NU's offense has been worse than the horrifically bad 2008-09 Indiana team that was decimated by NCAA penalties, worse than any of Todd Lickliter's Iowa teams, and yes, worse than any of Bill Carmody's teams. In fact, this season has shown us just how good an offensive coach Bill Carmody was.

Last season, NU finished 151st in offensive efficiency despite a huge run of injuries; by the end of the season they had much less talent on offense than the current roster. And the four years before that, they finished 40th, 24th, 19th and 16th in the country. There are many factors outside of Chris Collins' control that have caused the major decline since then: first off he doesn't have John Shurna or Juice Thompson like Carmody did, and it's also not his fault that Dave Sobolewski has regressed to the point of becoming the poor man's Sterling Williams.  But Collins would do well to emphasize the traits that made Northwestern's offense effective under Carmody.

Bill Carmody's teams were often among the national leaders in not turning the ball over, and his Princeton offense was predicated on the two most efficient shots in basketball: catch and shoot three pointers and lay-ups. No matter kind of system Collins wants to run, the goal of it should be to create high percentage chances without a lot of turnovers.

There was a play early in the Wisconsin game that illustrates this difference. Dave Sobolewski brought the ball up the court, got a ball screen at the top of the key and went around it, and then took an off-balance 16 footer from just inside the three point line. This is a horrible shot for just about any player, let alone for Sobolewski, who is shooting 27% from the field. Under Carmody, Northwestern almost never took shots like this. Under Collins, there hasn't been much of this, but a lot more than in previous years.

Collins likely wants his players to feel like they can play with freedom and not have to worry about being benched for one decision. This is a valid concern, but Collins needs to consult one of the many studies done on shooting efficiency and realize that long twos are horrible shots, especially early in the shot clock. Many have attempted to write off the offensive struggles as an adjustment to a new system, but that argument doesn't hold much water with me, as NU is playing a new system on defense as well and doing much better than in previous years. The talent mostly isn't there; I certainly don't expect Collins to get NU back into the top 40 nationally in offensive efficiency, but there's a reason people refer to the mid-range jumper as a lost art. It's a bad shot.

While the offense has gotten substantially worse, the defense has gotten substantially better. In Carmody's last seven seasons, NU never ranked better than 129th in defensive efficiency, and so far this year they're at 61st nationally, even after getting torched by Wisconsin. Collins has NU playing mostly man-to-man, and while the talent isn't there to match up with good teams (the defense has been poor in all five games against top 100 teams), NU is at least shutting down teams with similar talent levels. NU has done a good job on the defensive glass (51st nationally) and held opponents to a low percentage from the field (64th nationally). Collins has emphasized concepts such as help defense and boxing out, which were largely missing during the Carmody era. Against the better Big Ten teams, NU simply doesn't have the horses to compete, and I'd expect that defensive efficiency ranking to get worse, as it's currently skewed by NU shutting down the likes of Western Michigan, DePaul and Brown, but with decent players on the roster it's possible NU could actually play some solid defense under Collins, which you couldn't say under Carmody.

Those aforementioned decent players are coming in next year, and until then NU is going to get destroyed. Hopefully they can at least be competitive at times, but I'm not optimistic. The good news is they should manage a few wins; KenPom sets the odds of them going 0 for the Big Ten at 8 in 1000, and still has them winning four league games, which seems a bit high to me, but hey, his computer is probably smarter than me. At this point, I have two goals for the season: win at least one Big Ten game and make sure all of the recruits make it to Evanston next fall.

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