At the start of conference play in Chris Collins' first season as Northwestern's head coach, I contemplated the very real possibility that the Wildcats would fail to win a single Big Ten game.
After all: 13 years of Bill Carmody's recruiting had left Northwestern with a roster clearly unequipped for good basketball. And while Carmody was a notoriously good coach at wringing every ounce of success out of a roster he hand-picked to play his style of hoops, Chris Collins, was, well, a first-year head coach whose performance in the non-conference schedule had been disconcerting.
We took this into the beginning of conference play in what I believe to be the best conference in college hoops. The future was bright, thanks to Collins' recruiting prowess. but I was ready to fast-forward through the upcoming season.
Then something weird took place: The Wildcats started winning. And the way they've won games has been completely inexplicable.
And scariest of all, it's been... fun. Watching Northwestern sports and writing about it has been a blessing for me: it has inspired me to think, it has gotten me to meet people, it kinda sorta got me a job. But there have been very few times it's made me smile the way it has the past few weeks. When my expectations bottomed out, happiness happened.
The D That Came From Nowhere
The design of Bill Carmody's Northwestern teams is rather simple to discern from a peek at their statistical profiles: shooters welcome, defense optional.
Carmody never hoped to erase the talent deficiencies between the Wildcats and other teams, but rather make the most of them through a pair of sets.
The Princeton Offense was a meticulous attack designed to get shooters open looks, so Carmody stocked his team with guys who could hit open looks. Put those shooters on the other end, and they were likely lost in the man-to-man, so Carmody gave his crew the best opportunity they had to be successful by having them play the 1-3-1 zone. The ball pressure of the 1-3-1 zone would force turnovers regardless of the defensive talent of the players on the court, but was somewhat hapless if opponents made a few decisive passes.
For a long time, Northwestern flat-out sucked, but towards the end of Carmody's tenure, he pieced together some teams that were reasonably successful, nearly good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. This is how each team from 2008-109 on was ranked nationally in offense and in defense
This already shows us that Northwestern's offense was typically better than Northwestern's defense: four times in his final five years, it was in the top 50 nationally, thrice the top 25, while never cracking the top 125 defensively and appearing below 200 twice. But hey, that last year, Northwestern's offense was worse than its defense, right?,
More instructive is a look at their Big Ten rankings:
2010: 3/11th of 11
2011: 7/11th of 11
2012: 4/12th of 12
2013: 10/12th of 12
That's right: in Bill Carmody's last four years as coach, Northwestern had the worst defense in conference play, despite a defense that finished in the top third of the league thrice.
Things didn't start off particularly great under Collins. Against bad teams, Northwestern did fine defensively, but against good teams? In the Wildcats' first seven games against Kenpom top 100 teams:
419 points scored
556 points allowed
That's 91.3 points scored per possession, which would have been slightly worse than the 91.8 from conference play in Carmody's last year, and worse than every Carmody-era offense besides the 2006-07 team that went 2-14.
But the defense was the really scary thing: 1.23 points allowed per possession is horrendous. Yes, I cherry-picked the six games against top 100 teams, but even in Carmody's worst defensive years, they never approached this in Big Ten play. The only two teams in the country that have an adjusted defense that bad over the course of their schedule are Grambling and Cornell, neither of whom have won a game against Division I play thus far.
Then, magic happened. Here are Northwestern's figures from the last six games:
321 points scored
336 points allowed
Northwestern's offense is still horrendous. And they're still getting outscored, thanks to a 26-point whooping against Iowa and a 14-point loss to Michigan State.
But the defense... well, Northwestern is holding good opponents to less than a point per possession. And significantly less: about .901 points per 100 possessions. Northwestern's national splits:
So, from nowhere, Northwestern has an offense that isn't one of the top THREE HUNDRED in the country and is teetering on the top 10 nationally. Compare that to the ones above.
And an offense that's the worst in the conference, and a defense that's the fifth best in the league. After being relatively competent offensively, but horrific defensively, the exact opposite is true.
Today was Indiana's worst performance on offense (0.74 points per trip) in B1G play in almost 3 years (3/5/11, @ Illinois, 0.74).— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) January 18, 2014
Wisconsin scored 0.82 points per trip vs. NU, worst figure in B1G play since 1/8/12 (0.75 @ Michigan).— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) January 30, 2014
I chalk this drastic, sudden, incredible improvement up to three things.
1. We must worship Chris Collins
We must. We simply must. I thought going man-to-man with this group was insanity. He's stuck with it, and told his team to rally around defense, and they have.
Over the last five games, this is the most frequently used lineup:
Tre Demps --- JerShon Cobb -- Drew Crawford -- Sanjay Lumpkin -- Alex Olah
First, Alex Olah. The man in the middle is simply the best center we've seen at Northwestern, and I don't think there's much competition. We had a few years where Luka Mirkovic was borderline competent before his game completely collapsed towards the end of his career, but Olah has been downright good. He blocks 7.4 percent of shots while he's on the court, good for a top-100 national rating. He's been especially active of late: six blocks against Indiana, four blocks against Iowa, three against Purdue.
Now, let's talk about two people who weren't there last year, Cobb and Lumpkin. Cobb missed last season due to academic suspension, Lumpkin was done by the start of Big Ten play due to a variety of injuries -- and both are defensive stalwarts. We knew this about Cobb, who was an asset at the top of the 1-3-1 due to his athleticism, but he's been a spectacular asset as a man defender. Lumpkin is easily the second-best defender on the team behind Cobb, and despite being 6'6, has had no problems getting bodied by bigger men.
Now let's talk some people who aren't here: Northwestern's weakest defenders, like Dave Sobolewski, Kale Abrahamson, and Nate Taphorn. Abrahamson and Taphorn were quintessential Carmody-type players who can shoot. Sobolewski was a point guard who was a defensive sieve. Abrahamson has earned occasional minutes in the lineup due to his touch, but his role is smaller than it was last year. Sobolewski's offensive game has fallen off a cliff, and he's gone from a starter to a non-factor. (He's been injured, but he shouldn't play much when he gets back.) And Taphorn has never earned a spot in the rotation.
We said that Collins was going to try to win this year with Carmody's lineup, but that's not entirely true. The guys he has on the floor are much better guys to go to war with defensively, and it's showing.
3. Sheer damn luck
I'm so, so, so, so, so, so, so impressed with the improvement of Northwestern's interior defense. They've packed in and made the area inside the arc tough to score on, which is something I never would have expected against the Wildcats in a million years.
But it's coincided with a fascinating inability to hit shots by other teams. Every time I watch NU, I find myself as impressed with their defense as I am amazed by the other team's sudden inability to hit open shots.
On a hunch, I rewatched Wisconsin-Northwestern.
Teams will miss open shots, it's just part of basketball. And it's true, Northwestern did contest a good portion of outside looks.
But, man: I didn't even have to watch the whole first half to get enough images of dudes bricking wide open threes. Wisconsin shoots 37 percent from deep, and they went 5-for-24 against the Wildcats, and a lot of them looked just like this.
There has been a very real defensive improvement for Northwestern, and I'm hyperbolically proud. That's what's turning games we expected to be blowouts into tight affairs.
But what's letting Northwestern win is the disproportionate amount of CLANG their opposition is bringing to the table. Maybe other teams will keep dousing their shooters in ice water before games, but if not, the improbable victories might turn into the probable losses.
Why I'm giddy
They say it's better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, well, I say the person who said that is a stupid jerk and I hate them.
There was something crushing about the few years where Northwestern was truly on the brink of NCAA Tournament participation. It was the perennial tease: seeing Jared Sullinger or whoever stride off the court after beating Northwestern by one in a game that would have likely pushed the Wildcats onto the right side of the bubble, I understood how Sisyphus felt when the big stone went a-tumblin.
Northwestern will not make the NCAA Tournament this year. We've known that since they emerged from non-conference play with zero good wins and bad losses to Illinois State and DePaul.
Northwestern will probably not make the NIT this year. There is no longer a rule stating a team has to be .500 to receive an NIT bid, but since 2006, when that rule was eliminated, no team with a record worse than .500 has made the NIT, so we shouldn't presume Northwestern would be the first. To finish .500, the Wildcats would have to go 5-4 to end Big Ten play (or 4-5 and win two tourney games, or 3-6 and win three tourney games, etc.)
We've reveled in the improbable nature of Northwestern's 4-5 start to non-conference play. It's certainly possible that the Wildcats can finish the season 5-4. After all, they just won at Wisconsin, which was one of the most difficult games on their schedule. (One of them.) But it seems incredibly unlikely.
I suppose we could pull for Northwestern to go near-.500 while Michigan and Michigan State win every game and teams towards the bottom like Penn State and Nebraska win a few to make an 8-10 record slot into the top half of the conference. But after the past few years, I'm tired of scoreboard watching like every day is the most important thing ever. This has only brought Northwestern fans pain.
As of right now, Northwestern basketball is perfectly meaningless, and this makes our random, weird, stupid wins completely spectacular.
The troops are coming: Chris Collins' incoming class is supposedly the most talented group ever to play at Northwestern, and he's working defensive magic with the supposed scrubs he was left. For now, I'm loving rallying around some dudes hell-bent on playing tough D, and we can daydream about the tourney we'll make someday if things keep going this way.