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Stat Session: How Good are Northwestern's Offense and Defense?

We're a little more than halfway through the Northwestern basketball schedule, and almost one-third of the way through the Big Ten schedule, and a clear narrative has materialized: NU is bad on offense, but good on defense. Both are true in some ways, but even using advanced stats, the validity of that narrative is still murky.

When it comes to the offense, the narrative is undeniably correct. That makes sense, given the Wildcats' lack of talent and the move away from the Princeton Offense. As Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, it's like transitioning from the wishbone to a pro-style offense in football.

But just how bad is NU's offense? This tweet from ESPN's John Gasaway got me thinking:

I looked into it and as it turns out, Washington State ranks 254th nationally in KenPom's offensive efficiency ratings, while Northwestern ranks 313th. The Wildcats are the least efficient major-conference team in the country this season, and while it's too early to tell if NU will have the least efficient major-conference offense of the KenPom era, Chris Collins' team will undoubtedly be in the conversation.

First, let's take a look at how his NU team ranks against other Wildcat teams in the KenPom era, which started in 2002-03. (As a quick aside, all the data here is from, and if you're at all into college basketball stats, pay the $20 for the subscription. It's worth it.)


Offensive Efficiency

National Rank

Off. Eff. in B1G

Rank in B1G Play

2013-14 95.8 313 83.6 12
2012-13 101.8 151 93.8 10
2011-12 113.3 16 108.1 4
2010-11 114.2 19 105.7 7
2009-10 111.8 24 108.3 3
2008-09 110.7 40 104.0 4
2007-08 103.7 146 94.9 10
2006-07 102.5 159 90.5 11
2005-06 100.3 189 97.6 9
2004-05 99.7 196 100.0 7
2003-04 104.3 103 102.4 6
2002-03 103.6 116 98.1 9

By every measure, this is the worst offense NU has had during the KenPom era. The Wildcats' offense is astoundingly bad in Big Ten play — NU would average just 83.6 points per 100 possessions against an average Division I defense. Even when you include the cupcake-filled non-conference schedule, NU's offensive efficiency is bad. Of course, Collins needs time to get "his" players, and it's not like he can be judged off of this one year. But having the worst major-conference offense in the country is pretty bad, especially when 1) These players were successful as recently as two years ago, and 2) The most efficient offensive player, Alex Olah, is only used on 17.5 percent of possessions.

We can debate big picture all day, though making any conclusions about the future right now would be pretty irresponsible. The bottom line is that NU's offensive play and coaching have been pretty bad this season. You can't argue with those numbers.

But will NU be historically bad? That's tough to say. The worst major-conference offensive efficiency of the KenPom era is, oddly enough, Kevin O'Neill's 2011-12 USC team, which finished with 87.9 points per 100 possessions. The Wildcats to fall to those depths, since the Big Ten schedule gets easier — NU's Big Ten opponents so far have an average defensive efficiency ranking of 30.6, while average defensive efficiency ranking of the remaining opponents is 72. But even if the offensive numbers improve slightly, the average will continue to go down and 2013-14 is still setting up to be one of the worst major-conference offenses over the past few years.

[Update: We previously incorrectly identified the 2012-13 Mississippi State team, at 89.9 PPP, as the least efficient major-conference offense of the KenPom era.]

On the defensive side, the debate is much less cut and dry.

On the surface, NU's defense looks great. It ranks 37th in the nation overall and appears to have passed the ill-advised "eye test" of fans. However, as Matthew Snow of Basketball by the NUmbers pointed out at the end of non-conference season, NU hasn't played great defense against great teams. Overall, that trend has continued in Big Ten play, as the Wildcats rank 10th in the conference with a defensive efficiency that has fallen off since the end of the cupcake portion of the schedule.


Defensive Efficiency

National Rank

Def. Eff. in B1G

Rank in B1G Play

2013-14 95.8 37 110.8 10
2012-13 99.3 134 111.5 12
2011-12 103.1 205 111.4 12
2010-11 101.0 137 114.0 11
2009-10 103.5 214 113.2 11
2008-09 99.8 129 107.8 9
2007-08 107.5 271 116.7 11
2006-07 101.3 137 110.2 10
2005-06 96.9 78 104.6 8
2004-05 96.1 56 110.2 10
2003-04 97.6 82 103.7 7
2002-03 103.2 196 111.8 11

This is NU's fifth-best defense of the KenPom era, which isn't all that impressive considering the Wildcats' history of bad defense. What caught my eye the most, actually, is that Carmody's best defenses came earlier in his career. When it comes to Collins, is his first team's defense good? No. But is it better than past NU teams that had some of the same players? Minimally, but yes. Looking a little deeper, the outlook is a bit brighter.

The competition level plays a part in how well NU has performed defensively so far in Big Ten play. The Wildcats have played three of the five best offenses in the country and the results have reflected that. NU's worst defensive games have come against those offenses: Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan.

Opponent Opp. PPP Opp. Off. Eff. Rank Rank of Game in B1G
Wisconsin 1.31 3 2 out of 4
Michigan 1.21 5 2 out of 4
Iowa 1.27 4 1 out of 4
Illinois 0.74 181 5 out of 5
Michigan State 1.00 30 4 out of 5

The Wildcats' points per possession rates were pretty bad in those games, but only one of the teams, Iowa, has had its best Big Ten offensive game against NU. Wisconsin had a better game against Illinois and Michigan had a better game against Penn State, so even though NU played badly in those games, similar teams have suffered the same fate.

Over the past two games, the defense has improved. A lot of teams will have good games against Illinois, so even though the PPP number is great, the fact that it was the Illini's worst Big Ten game is equally as impressive. The Michigan State result is also encouraging. The Spartans have a respectable offense and had their second-worst game against the Wildcats.

Don't expect the PPP numbers to stay as low as they have the past two games — Illinois and Michigan State did play uncharacteristically poorly — but there is some hope that NU can compete and put up solid defensive numbers against the league's worst offenses. That's better than the offense can say it would fare against the league's worst defenses.

So back to that narrative: the offense is bad and the defense is good.

Statistically, the offense is about as bad as bad gets for major-conference teams. The defense might not be good, but it is slightly better than it was on past NU squads and has had some solid outings against when the opposing offense isn't ranked in the top five nationally. It's not where NU wants to be, but in a season full of the struggles that go along with coaching changes, it's a nice positive.