2013 was an important year for Northwestern basketball. That’s not because of any on-court achievement, nor is it because the current team has shown any significant promise. Rather, it’s because of the hiring of Chris Collins back in March. Just how important was it?
2014 will go a long way towards answering that question. It will offer Collins and his staff another full year of recruiting, another full year of system implementation, and another full year to translate the results of those two things into wins. That’s the long-term view.
However, the more immediate task for Collins and his team is to navigate a Big Ten schedule littered with sturdy roadblocks. Exactly how tough is the task for Northwestern? Here’s a look at how NU stacks up with the rest of the Big Ten in some crucial statistical categories. As you’ll see, the numbers aren’t pretty.
Northwestern/Big Ten Statistical Breakdown
All statistics referenced are based only on games prior to the start of Big Ten play on Tuesday.
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency
(note: NU’s effective field goal percentage stats are very similar to adjusted offensive efficiency stats)
NU Big Ten Rank – 12/12 (253rd in the country)
Rest of Big Ten – 5 in top 30, all 11 in top 125
This, more than any other statistic, illustrates Northwestern’s inferiority to the rest of the league. It perhaps exaggerates the gap between the Wildcats and the pack – not every team is great – but everybody in the pack is at least moderately efficient on offense; Northwestern simply is not.
Adjusted Defensive Efficiency
(note: NU’s opponent effective field goal percentage stats are very similar to adjusted defensive efficiency stats)
NU Big Ten Rank – 7/12 (47th in country)
Rest of Big Ten – 6 in top 40, 10 in top 100
One of the areas in which Northwestern measures up with the rest of the conference is defensive efficiency. However, this stat has been exposed as a bit fluky. Against the four KenPom top-100 teams that NU faced in November and December, their defensive efficiency took a turn for the worse – and every single Big Ten team that Northwestern will face from this point on ranks in that same top 100. However, that four-game sample size is small, so there’s still a chance that the Wildcats are actually as good defensively as their adjusted defensive efficiency number suggests. If in fact they are, they will be able to compete with more Big Ten teams than you might think.
Offensive Rebounding Percentage
NU Big Ten Rank – 12/12 (314th in country)
Rest of Big Ten – 3 in top 50, 5 in top 100
Somewhat surprisingly, this edition of the Big Ten isn’t as formidable on the offensive glass as previous editions. The Wildcats themselves aren’t too good either though.
Opponent Offensive Rebounding Percentage
NU Big Ten Rank – 6/12 (47th in country)
Rest of Big Ten – 6 in top 50, 8 in top 100
Keeping opponents off the offensive boards is an area where Northwestern has been unexpectedly strong throughout non-conference play. Consider that, and consider the previous statistical category (and that the Big Ten isn’t overwhelmingly strong in that category) and it’s realistic to think that there’s an outside chance that Northwestern could equal their opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage in conference play. Come March, if Northwestern’s ratio of offensive rebounding percentage to opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage is anywhere close to 1-to-1 in conference play, Collins will surely be pleased.
Opponent FT Rate
NU Big Ten Rank – 10/12
Rest of Big Ten – 5 in top 25, 8 in top 100
Against less-than-stellar competition in non-conference play, Northwestern consistently struggled to get clear looks at the rim. In conference play, it will likely be even more difficult. One of the simplest ways to combat that is to get to the free throw line, but NU is out of luck. Most Big Ten teams don’t put their opponents on the foul line with regularity, so the Wildcats will have to improve their shooting from the floor.
NU Big Ten Rank – 11/12
Rest of Big Ten – 6 in top 50, 10 in top 80
Continuing on a theme, another way to get easy points is to force turnovers and score in transition. Unfortunately, most of the Big Ten teams take good care of the ball – Indiana being the lone exception – so Northwestern can’t rely on points off turnovers to make up for the talent gap between them and their opponents.
Three Point Percentage
NU Big Ten Rank – 11/12
Three Point Attempt Percentage
NU Big Ten Rank – 1/12
This doesn’t really have much to do with rest of the Big Ten. It’s just an opportunity to point out that Northwestern shoots a poor percentage from beyond the arc, yet essentially jacks up threes at a higher rate than any other Big Ten team. That’s not the greatest formula for success.
Opponent Three Point Percentage
NU Big Ten Rank – 5/12 (52nd in country)
Rest of Big Ten – 6 in top 60, 8 in top 100
To exacerbate the previous data, most Big Ten teams defend the three-pointer pretty well. Northwestern does too, but they attempt a lot more long-range jumpers than their opponents will, so their own ranking isn’t as meaningful.
NU Big Ten Rank – 11/12
Rest of Big Ten – 8 in top 100
Opponent Block Percentage
NU Big Ten Rank – 12/12 (340/351 in country)
One last statistic that condemns NU to failure over the next two months: a good portion of Big Ten teams have major shot-blocking presences; meanwhile, Northwestern ranks disturbingly close to worst in the entire nation in opponent block percentage, meaning the rate at which they get their own shots turned back by opponents is shockingly high. The takeaway? Not only will it be agonizingly tough for Northwestern to get off good shots in conference play, it might be tough to get off shots at all.
The stats back up what has become ever so apparent over the last two months: compared to the rest of the conference, Northwestern will be undermanned. The individual players on NU’s roster can’t match the athleticism and basketball ability of many of their Big Ten counterparts.
Therefore, any success Northwestern has in Big Ten play likely won’t be because they dominate individual matchups. Instead, it will come from a team-wide effort. Many of the aforementioned statistical categories evaluate a team’s ability to do various things on the court that go a long way towards achieving success. However, the percentages the Wildcats have accumulated over their first 13 games affirm the thought that Northwestern could endure a nightmarishly poor Big Ten season. In fact, they may suggest that it could be worse than even the most overtly pessimistic fans might have imagined.