We're seven games into the Big Ten basketball season, and Northwestern sits right above Ohio State, Indiana and Illinois in the conference standings. Just how it was supposed to go, right? Anyways, this little winning streak — three out of the last four — has been pretty incredible, given how bad the Wildcats were earlier in the season. There are a lot of vaguely connected things to say about this stretch, so here I'll offer my thoughts, with some more full-length articles to come in the near future.
The defense is legit
I was skeptical of pointing out the defensive improvement after the Illinois game. Northwestern hadn't defended at all in the first three games of the conference season, so it was hard to not see the performance against the Illini as a fluke. The Michigan State game did a little bit to convince me. The Indiana game did so even more, and now after the performance against Purdue, I'm buying in. And it's not just showing up on the stats sheet.
The three-point defense has gotten the most praise, and that part of NU's game certainly deserves the attention. The Wildcats are closing out well on threes, and even when opponents are shooting well from beyond the arc, like Purdue did tonight, most of the shots have been contested. But the big indicator of the improved defense has been inside the arc. Purdue shot just 8-for-37 from two-point range. Indiana was 11-for-42 and Illinois was 14-for-45. Those are pretty incredible numbers, given how bad the Wildcats have defended two-pointers in the past. The improvement can be attributed to Alex Olah's growth and the help defense, which has taken massive strides this year. JerShon Cobb has always been a good defender, and Sanjay Lumpkin has been praised for his defense since he came into the program. However, turning Alex Olah and Tre Demps into formidable defenders might be Chris Collins' greatest trick.
It's also important to note just how much the transition defense has improved. Sanjay Lumpkin, Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb, in particular, have beeb outstanding in that area — an area that the Wildcats have struggled in up until recently. All-in-all, the defensive results have been pretty incredible. This has been no fluke.
Silver linings on offense?
There is no debating that Northwestern's offense is historically awful. The Wildcats can't make shots even when they get good ones, and they spend far more time passing the ball aimlessly around the perimeter than they should. However, as pointed out by our own Josh Rosenblat today, there are some things to like. And looking toward the future, there is hope.
First, Tre Demps is the real deal. He can create his own shot and he's becoming NU's go-to guy on offense. His rise has been incredible. Second, Alex Olah has shown his potential to become an upper echelon Big Ten center. He's struggled with double teams, but even in a bad scoring performance against Purdue, he did a better job of identifying open shooters on double teams. He'll continue to grow and could prove to be the Wildcats' best center since the Evan Eschmeyer days.
Demps and Olah have made the greatest strides, but Cobb has improved his jump shot, Kale Abrahamson seems to have found his touch from deep at times and Lumpkin could materialize into a strong player on the offensive glass and the dribble drive. NU needs to fix a lot of things offensively, but the potential is there. That's encouraging.
Collins can coach
Yes, Collins first recruiting class at Northwestern has been impressive, and it's far better than any class Bill Carmody brought to Evanston. However, Matthew Snow of @bkbtNUmbers made a good point recently: even if Collins continues to bring in talent like that on a consistent basis, the Wildcats are only going to have average talent in the Big Ten. That means Collins would have to out-coach some of the best coaches in the conference and in the country to consistently make the NCAA Tournament.
You can't criticize a new coach's future coaching ability on his first few games, but Collins has already put together some impressive performances. He's out-coached John Groce, Tom Crean and Matt Painter within the span of a week-and-a-half.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Collins' coaching performance is his willingness to change his style and win with this team however he can. He certainly wants to play fast, but acknowledged that he can't with this group (also, props for not calling his obviously slow offense "up-tempo"). That's good coaching, and slowing things down has wonders for the Wildcats this season.
- Northwestern's next game is against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have one of the fastest, and still one of the most efficient offenses in the country. That isn't likely to go well for NU, but even if it doesn't, the sky isn't falling. Iowa is really, really good.
- NU is going to have a hard beating the best teams in the Big Ten this year, but the Wildcats have proven they can beat the middle of the pack. That's impressive, especially in Collins' first year and in a season in which NU was expected to be pretty non-competitive.
- Collins called out "our analytics people" today. Hmmm... interesting timing. FWIW, I still stand by the pretty non-debatable statement there is more to coaching than advanced statistics, but those stats can help coaches learn more about their team and help good coaches get better.
- Speaking of stats, here's a great one from @ZachWWarren: Northwestern is 3-0 against teams from Indiana this year. The closest of the games was a two-point win over IUPUI. Gotta love sports.
- I thought this group of scores was pretty hilarious:
Northwestern 63, Purdue 60
Purdue 66, Illinois 58
Illinois 83, Indiana 80
Northwestern 54, Indiana 47
Indiana 75, Wisconsin 72
Wisconsin 76, Northwestern 49
- I've seen a lot of people say tonight was the most fun they've ever had at a Northwestern basketball game. Considering the (lack of) stakes and the poor quality of play, that's strange, but I also kind of get it. Tonight seemed to be the night when a lot of the fan base bought in. That's a big step for a program that seems so excited for its future.