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Northwestern Basketball Big Ten Preview

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

There is only so much one can discern in November and December about a team’s strengths and weaknesses. The picture is never complete after nonconference play. Teams play wacky schedules and widely varying competition levels. Games are played in tropical locations and neutral courts. Then, at the turn of the new year, a new breed of competition begins. But for a few exceptions sprinkled throughout the final three months of the season, teams play exclusively against teams from within their own conference. Campus gyms – not professional arenas or Hawaiian Islands – serve as the invariable staging grounds for high-stakes inter-league warfare. New levels of intensity and urgency are invoked, historic rivalries induce contentious play and the emotion of the moment induces the very best competitive spirit from all involved. When conference bragging rights are on the line, teams bring it.

Finishing on top of this year’s Big Ten will not be easy. The conference produced six teams ranked in the latest AP top 25, including three in the top 10. Aside from one massive rebuilding project (Nebraska) and one star-less outfit (Penn State, who lost do-everything guard Tim Frazier for the season), the Big Ten features 10 teams who, with the right mix of conference victories and weak bubble composition, could realistically sneak into the NCAA Tournament. A double-digit projection is a huge stretch; the Big Ten will more likely send seven or eight teams to the Tournament. The point is not to suggest that 10 teams will qualify, but that there are 10 teams who can at least hold on to the idea that making a run at selection is not some kind of impossible fantasy. Whatever the number, the scramble for inclusion will create suspenseful hoop across the league, from the power-brokers at the top jostling for No. 1 seeds, to the bubble-dwellers hoping to sneak in with strong conference tournament runs.

As Northwestern embarks on its league schedule, I’m stopping to survey the Big Ten landscape and project how the Wildcats will fare in the throes of conference competition. The Wildcats’ slate is filled with pitfalls, but in a year when the Big Ten is not only extremely deep and well-constructed but also top-loaded with multiple national contenders, the schedule looks noticeably more difficult than in recent years. Before Northwestern gets into it, I’m using the nonconference season, along with observations from the rest of the league, to point out some key data points and trends for conference play.

My main focus, naturally, is Northwestern – and the bulk of what you see below concerns the internal workings of the Wildcats – but I’ve taken it upon myself to paint a subjective snapshot of the rest of the Big Ten by compiling a set of “power rankings,” which should help contextualize the Wildcats’ position amongst league competitors. The rankings, like other analytical segments in this Big Ten preview, are wholly and utterly subjective, so poke holes and critique them as you will; that’s what makes good sports debate. The Wildcats begin Big Ten play on January 3 with No. 2-ranked Michigan. Here’s to hoping for an exciting conference season and, perhaps more immediately relevant, that the following feature gives you a good sense of Northwestern’s place in the Big Ten landscape, along with the unique set of challenges it faces going forward.

Big Ten Power Rankings

1. Michigan – Were it not for Duke’s historically rigorous nonconference schedule, which the Blue Devils navigated without error, Michigan would have a pretty strong argument for the No. 1 ranking overall. Not only are the Wolverines undefeated, with solid wins over Pittsburgh, Kansas State, NC State and West Virginia, but they look equally formidable in the tempo-free statistical realm, too, ranking third nationally in per-possession offense and 24th in defense. Plus, they seem to be getting better over time. John Beilein has seamlessly integrated a batch of shiny new freshmen and tweaked his system to make the pieces fit. It’s all working very nicely. There’s plenty to like here.

2. Indiana – The Butler win doesn’t look pretty, mostly because talent-wise, the Bulldogs have nothing on the Hoosiers. But Tom Crean is hardly the first coach to get taken to school by Brad Stevens, and he won’t be the last. Plus, when Alex Barlow is making game-winning shots in overtime, sometimes you just throw your hands up, tip your cap and accept the fate of the day. Indiana remains an efficient scoring beast – their 121.6 offensive efficiency rating, No. 1 in the country, is proof enough of the fact – and its defense (ranked 10th nationwide in its own right) will improve once newly eligible freshmen Hanner Mosquera-Parea and Peter Jurkin get more minutes and provide Cody Zeller with some much-needed physical reinforcement on the low-block.

3. Minnesota – Here’s how you know you have a balanced offensive ballclub: five of Minnesota’s players – Trevor Mbakwe, Maurice Walker, Rodney Williams, Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman – are averaging more than 100 points per-possession and using more than 20 percent of available possessions. Which means the Gophers aren’t just sharing the ball. They’re sharing the ball and getting productive touches everywhere it lands. It also doesn’t hurt that Mbakwe, an interior force still recovering from offseason knee surgery, is putting up huge numbers in marginal minutes. Get him on the court in longer intervals and this team could take off.

4. Ohio State – The two blemishes (at Duke, against Kansas) on Ohio State’s resume aren’t really blemishes at all. The Buckeyes went into one of the toughest gyms in the country and nearly pulled one out, which is nearly a win in itself. The Kansas loss raised some concerns – namely, who can provide supplementary scoring when DeShaun Thomas goes cold or gets bogged down by an elite defense – but it’s nothing that should threaten the Buckeyes’ place in the Big Ten’s upper-echelon. Thomas will score, Aaron Craft will defend and the rest will fall into place. 

5. Illinois – No coaching hire has effected immediate positive change quite like Illinois’ decision to lure John Groce from Ohio, where he built an annual NCAA Tournament giant killer on stifling close-out, turnover-inducing defense and perimeter-centric offense. He’s ratcheting up the tempo in Champaign, and so far, it’s largely worked. Until Illinois’ dangerously large proportion of three-point attempts stop falling at an efficient rate – the Illini generate 43.2 percent of their offense off threes – I can’t quibble with the facts: Illinois is beating very good teams (save a neutral-court loss to Missouri); hence, the No. 5 ranking.

6. Michigan State – I can see it now. The negative opinion is mounting on this year’s Spartans, and like most seasons, those who doubt Tom Izzo will probably come out on the wrong end of their early season forecasts. Michigan State’s season-opening loss to a transfer-riddled UConn team (plus a convincing defeat at Miami two weeks later) turned a bunch of folks away from the Spartans, and that’s understandable. But when the calendar flips to January, and the Midwest’s best travel to the Breslin Center, normalcy will reign. Michigan State is quietly sorting out its personnel issues, most notably its frontcourt quandary. Once this team congeals, fully buys into that Izzoian defensive and rebounding intensity, and stops turning it over at such a high rate (23.0 percent of possessions, the 275th highest rate in the country), we’ll have another league championship contender on our hands.

7. Wisconsin – There’s a lot not to like about Wisconsin. Everything points to the Badgers finally hitting the aberrant down year that’s eluded Bo Ryan throughout his tenure. Four losses in nonconference play, none of which were particularly close, and one of which came at home to an offensively lagging and stylistically analogous Virginia squad, suggests a team whose mechanically consistent success rate is in real jeopardy. But then you look at Wisconsin’s statistical profile – its No. 23-ranked offense, No. 21 ranked defense, and a handful of other promising measureables – and you can’t help but punt on passing judgment. I need to see more before I count this lot out.

8. Iowa – Everyone’s trendy Big Ten sleeper pick is quietly piecing together a very nice nonconference season, having swept in-state foes Iowa State and Northern Iowa in succession, but it feels like the vocal supporters have packed their bags and moved on to other flashier outfits. So I can’t help but ask: where is the love, man? Fran McCaffery’s team is young, athletic and extremely tough to keep pace with (the Hawkeyes average 70.0 possessions per game). But not only are they getting out on the break, they are also finishing at a more-than-respectable clip inside the three-point line (51.7 percent). They could use some more consistent long-range shooting, but if that’s your main problem at this stage – as opposed to say, defense, or rebounding – you are in a good place.

9. Northwestern – When you talk about teams undergoing transition years, conversation typically focuses on a year-to-year phenomenon whereby teams adjust to losing players either through graduation or the NBA draft. Northwestern is embarking on a different type of transition: adjusting to life without Drew Crawford. As it stands, Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn stand to lead the process of replacing Crawford’s scoring output, but plenty of others will need to chip in. The sequence spawns a host of associated questions. Can Kale Abrahamson convert a favorable percentage from downtown? What’s Nikola Cerina’s offensive potential? Is Alex Olah a reliable low-post scorer? We should find out soon enough.

10. Purdue – The Robbie Hummel era of Boilermakers basketball ended in disappointment, with Ryne Smith’s desperation three-pointer clanking off the iron and sending Purdue home after a near upset of eventual national finalist Kansas in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Enter a new set of talented but raw freshmen, four of whom – forward A.J. Hammons and Jay Simpson, swingman Raphael Davis and guard Ronnie Johnson – have jumped into “Significant Contributor”, defined as using between 20-24 percent of possessions or “Major Contributor” (24-28 percent) roles, per The future is bright, but the returns may not arrive as quickly as Boilermaker fans would like.

11. Nebraska – I want to believe that Nebraska will be good, that Tim Miles has the Huskers headed in the right direction, that the athletic department is spending more money and time on the basketball program than ever before, and that everything is coming up roses. But you’re going to have a hard time convincing me, or anyone else with an eye for tempo-free statistics, that a 95.1 offensive efficiency rank and the nation’s No. 282 offensive rebounding percentage constitutes anything positive. Tim Miles is a very good basketball coach, and he’s good for an entertaining Tweet or two. So there’s that. There’s also this: Miles is making real headway on the recruiting trail, so even if Nebraska lags near the bottom of the standings for a while, the Huskers should have the talent level befitting Big Ten competition sooner rather than later.

12. Penn State – There may be no injury as devastating to one team’s fortunes as Tim Frazier’s is to Penn State. He was their do-everything scorer and leader, and frankly, their only hope of actually making a move out of the Big Ten cellar. It’s going to be a long season for the Nittany Lions, but if it’s any consolation, Southern Miss transfer D.J. Newbill is showing flashes of offensive ability, and he should mesh well when if/when Frazier is granted eligibility for next season. Here’s another positive angle: the Nittany Lions are allowing opponents to grab only 24 percent of their misses, which means Penn State is keeping the opposition off the glass and…that’s about it. Beyond the ever-present possibility of a miraculous upset thanks to an inordinately high shooting-percentage or an opponent’s poor performance, there’s not all that much to look forward to.

Northwestern’s Keys To Big Ten Play 

Toughest Stretch: January 13 – January 23: Iowa (Jan. 13), at Illinois (Jan. 17), Indiana (Jan. 20), Minnesota (Jan. 23) 

The breadth of high-level competition spanning the Big Ten makes elevating specific segments of games above the rest extremely difficult. Every team presents its own unique challenge. Any set of contests is brutal in its own way. The stretch I’ve chosen, a mid-January gauntlet featuring as many as four tourney-level clubs, will test Northwestern more than any set of games its faced to date. It’s not just the quality of competition, but the acute time demands of preparing for four formidable opponents in a 10-day span. The good news: the Wildcats get the two toughest games, Indiana and Minnesota, at home.

For Northwestern, home-road advantage may not be as straightforward a variable as what meets the eye – remember, the Wildcats picked up their biggest victory thus far on the road, at Baylor, and have struggled in their biggest home nonconference spots. So while playing Indiana and Minnesota at home probably favors Northwestern more than playing them in their own hostile home gyms, there’s no evidence from this season’s minimal sample of games to support that premise. You just don’t know.

In any case, every game will challenge Northwestern in different ways, but if it can manage a two-two split, or somehow pull off three-of-four, the Wildcats can boost their Tournament chances immensely and springboard themselves into the relatively manageable stretch that follows.

Easiest Stretch: January 26 – Feb 2: at Nebraska (Jan. 26), at Michigan (Jan. 30), Purdue (Feb. 2).

If you’re looking at that trio and thinking to yourself: “wait a second, how on earth is that easy?,” I understand the confusion. That is no cakewalk. In most leagues, the above three games would be considered a real challenge. Make no mistake: it’s difficult in this league, too, but compared to the rest of Northwestern’s lineup of games, it’s the easiest grouping I could find. After scanning the 18-game schedule for manageable pockets of games, I reached a conclusion based on various relevant factors – home-road environments, contrasting styles of play, etc. – and deciding that Northwestern is appreciably better than two of the chosen three teams (Nebraska and Purdue).

Traveling to Ann Arbor is a tough spot, and the Wildcats will probably lose that game, but the bookended fixtures are completely manageabl. Northwestern should be favored to win two of those games, and in this year’s rugged Big Ten, that’s more than sufficient. It’s important Northwestern takes advantage of this minor scheduling break, because the ensuing slate – which includes games at Iowa, at Ohio State, against Illinois and Wisconsin – is brutal, and the preceding set (which I highlighted in the “toughest stretch” category) is even more daunting. Here’s the bottom line: the way Northwestern’s roster has been depleted by suspension and injury, slip-ups against lesser competition could be lethal when it comes to Tournament considerations.

The Wildcats margin of error is, needless to say, slim (especially after a not-so-hot out-of-league performance). It needs to capitalize on the games it should win, and pull out a few that it shouldn’t. That means avoiding upsets at all costs while engineering a few of its own against superior teams. It is a blueprint doesn’t allow for losses to Nebraska and Purdue, by all accounts winnable games. If the Wildcats can rope up the massive beast that is Michigan at the Crisler Center in between the two should-be-wins, well: icing on the cake.

Who Needs To Step Up: Jared Swopshire

One key scorer had his season nixed before it ever got off the ground. Another called it quits after just 10 games. JerShonn Cobb and Drew Crawford’s absences create different schematic problems on both ends of the floor. They cause depth problems. They leave Northwestern less athletic and less capable defensively. Here’s another angle: the Wildcats’ scoring capability is severely hampered. To makeup for their lost production, other players must step up and increase their individual scoring responsibilities. Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn have accepted the challenge. Jared Swopshire? Not so much.

For all the talk of Swopshire’s fluid athleticism and natural scoring ability and innate lead-by-example charisma, the Louisville transfer has struggled to integrate himself into the offense and become the type of primary scoring threat most envisioned. He’s been effective in spurts – 22 points against Mississippi Valley State, back-to-back 15 point-games against TCU and Illinois State, 12 points against Baylor – but Swopshire hasn’t yet strung together a consistent spell of double-digit efforts. Which isn’t to say Swopshire needs to break the 10-point barrier every night – but more to illustrate the loose numerical scope of his performance to date. What Swopshire lacks is the initiative to attack defenders off the dribble and drive into the paint with a focused intent on finishing at the rim. He often settles for contested jump shots or makes conservative passes to semi-covered teammates. And his forays into the lane end in passive kickouts, unobtrusive lateral movements or feeble layup attempts. Swopshire needs to take initiative in dashing by perimeter defenders and challenging rim-protecting big men by leaping at the cup with force and purpose.

It’s not a matter of subpar skills or athleticism – in practice, he is as proactive and active as any of his teammates– nor is it so much related to poor positioning or an inability to understand the Princeton offense. My best guess is that Swopshire isn’t completely comfortable in his new setting, trying to learn the tendencies and preferences of a new group of players and a completely new offensive philosophy, or that he hasn’t quite found his sea legs in Carmody’s system. Be it physical, mental or some combination therein, Swopshire has to sort things out, and quickly. Northwestern needs him to realize his potential and grow into a reliable big-time scorer.

Breakout Player: Alex Olah

The potential and promise of Olah’s game is tantalizing. There’s the seven-foot, 275-pound frame, the soft hands, and intuitive passing ability, the foot work that gets better and better with each game. Once he puts it all together, Olah will be a force. That process will not complete itself overnight. Olah’s development is a gradual phenomenon that may require all four years of eligibility to complete. One thing is for sure: Olah is on the right track. There are games where Olah, emanating confidence and poise, is converting shots at high rates, voraciously crashing the glass, and pinpointing accurate passes to cutting teammates and open shooters. This version of Olah appeared most notably in games against Baylor and Stanford, when he submitted a combined 26 points on 50 percent shooting, grabbed 11 rebounds and totaled seven assists.

The other side of Olah is less flattering. On bad days, his mannerisms reek of nerves and indecision, sentiments that pervade his game in unproductive ways. Olah catches the ball in poor angles, fires contested shots around the rim and gets caught watching as others pursue missed shots with more haste and aggression. Those bad habits hurt his own production and, more broadly, the operation of the Princeton offense, which demands an efficient passer at the high post. Offensive rebounding is another variable: when Olah isn’t cleaning the backboard, Northwestern’s 242nd ranked offensive rebounding percentage (29.7) sinks even further.

It is difficult to identify the reasons behind the fluctuation between Olah’s two on-court identities, because they seem to follow one another in direct succession. One game Olah is playing efficient offense and lockdown defense; the next he serves as an exploitable weakpoint for opportunistic frontcourt opponents. The inconsistency in Olah’s efforts makes my prediction a risky one. The hope is that he will eliminate the bad performances and learn to evoke his positive qualities on a nightly basis.

My sense is that he’s getting there, if only slowly, but progress is noticeable. The biggest reason for my recent optimism is the Stanford game, when Olah not only incorporated himself into the offense on a larger scale, posting a team-high 35 percent usage rate, but did so while scoring at an efficient clip (118 points-per possession). He did not follow that up with another strong outing in the Brown game, but I fully believe the Cardinal presented a more realistic picture of competition level Olah will face in Big Ten play. The physical ability and basketball knowledge is intact. Now Olah needs to unleash them productively, in tandem, for extended periods.


Chance Northwestern Will Make The Tournament: 30 percent
Big Ten record: 6-12

Last season, Northwestern won eight games in conference play. That was a disappointing total for a several reasons. For one, the Wildcats lost several games decided in the final moments on lucky/unlucky bounces, a couple made/missed shots or pure chance, many of them during a crucial stretch that sealed their Tournament fate. For another, John Shurna – arguably the greatest player in program history – finished his illustrious career without breaking Northwestern’s notorious postseason streak. And the worst part was that Northwestern veered exceedingly close to a breakthrough. It had a long, hard look at the lady standing across the bubble cutline, flirted with her, exchanged phone numbers, but when it mattered most, could not arrange a date.

If my prediction plays out as reality, the disappointment will be subdued. That’s because with just six Tournament wins, Northwestern will not receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. You won’t have to sweat it out, either. Six wins means the Wildcats probably won’t even get close. Northwestern was dealt a huge blow this offseason when news broke of Cobb’s suspension. Crawford’s injury is an even larger obstacle. Northwestern lost its best defender and its best scorer. That is a tough hurdle to overcome irrespective of competition level. In this year’s Big Ten, where most games will be remain competitive deep into the second half, and no team is safe from an upset – no matter how large the perceived talent gap – losing Cobb and Crawford is an absolute killer.

That doesn’t mean Northwestern can’t make the Tournament – only that it will require a drastic improvements from the rest of the roster. It is not impossible (winning the Big Ten Tournament is a last-ditch pipeline); it is unlikely. The Big Ten is a rugged landscape that leaves little leeway for mistakes, and the Wildcats do not enter conference play with enough nonleague resume heft to withstand an upset loss. If Northwestern is to make a Tournament run, it cannot drop games against inferior competition.

Holding serve won’t be enough. The Wildcats must take down at least one member of the league’s elite tier (Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State). They must pray that automatic bids don’t fall to unlikely conference tournament winners of smaller conferences and hope the Big Ten’s top-to-bottom quality gives the selection committee added incentive to include more of its teams. The challenge is great, but it is not inconceivable. Northwestern can qualify for the NCAA Tournament. I just don’t think it will.

*All statistics updated to December 27.