The most distinct difference between the Northwestern of 2013-14 and the Northwestern teams in the decade earlier, was the clear commitment to winning games on the defensive end. Whereas Northwestern felt compelled to outshoot its opponents using the Princeton offense (regarded as one of the most complex and beautiful offensive schemes in basketball, for all you Princeton haters), Chris Collins made his team known for its defensive tenacity and that manifested itself statistically as well.
According to KenPom's tempo-free basketball analytics, Northwestern had the 14th-most efficient defense in the nation last season.
Can Northwestern keep up that impressive rank?
Conveniently, KenPom's tempo-free basketball preview statistics were released over the weekend and its clear that Mr. Pomeroy's answer to this question is a resounding "no."
In his projections, Northwestern ranks as the 42nd-most efficient defense in the country, with the rating dropping from 94.2 to 96.5 (lower is better).
For elite college basketball programs, top offensive and defensive ratings are garnered year after year. But Northwestern is far from an elite basketball program and it will be an interesting development to see how Northwestern's defense will carry over from Collins' first year as head coach. While I am certain that Collins' emphasis on defense will remain, I am less certain that Northwestern's defense will be as statistically solid as it was a season ago.
One reason that Northwestern's defense will not be as effective this season has to do with offensive scheme. Although Collins made it a point to talk about pushing the offense's tempo in the weeks leading up to his first season, the offense did end up playing at a very methodical pace. This not only limited offensive possessions, but also limited opponents' possessions.
It seems as though Collins will rely heavily on players such as freshmen Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law to look to push the ball up the floor more often. A more fast-paced style will limit Northwestern's ability to defend to the level the team did a season ago.
Also, Northwestern garnered its high defensive rating despite not forcing opponents to commit many turnovers. The Wildcats ranked 287th in the nation in defensive turnover percentage. Basically, that means that Northwestern's opponents were able to have full-length, meaningful possessions often ending in shots but just did not convert as often.
This stat could be interpreted in two ways. First, the pessimist could point out that teams won't shoot as poorly against Northwestern as they did last season and the lack of turnovers will doom the Wildcats' defensive efficiency. The optimist, though, may point out that if Northwestern was able to force more turnovers, than the defense could improve upon last season's performance.
I fall more in the pessimist camp on this issue but I do think Northwestern does have the ability to force more turnovers. According to Collins, freshman Johnnie Vassar is a tenacious on-ball defender that loves to pick up his man full-court. Law is a long wing who could be disruptive in passing lanes. Alex Olah, even, turned out to be a pretty solid rim protecter with his 1.8 blocks per game last season.
But if Northwestern can't improve its ability to force turnovers, than there's little reason to believe the Wildcats can be as good defensively as they were in 2013-14.