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What do the numbers say about Northwestern basketball?

KenPom sees some improvement on offense and a hotly-contested Big Ten.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The initial ratings came out late Sunday nights, which means two things. 1) You all need to get KenPom subscriptions, and 2) Basketball is getting closer!

The ratings have Northwestern coming in at 77th nationally, and they give us a good idea of what the expectations should be for the Wildcats this season, which has a lot of unknowns. Let's take a look at some of the most interesting notes from the projections and how the numbers see NU this year.

The Big Ten is damn good

Here are the initial ratings for each Big Ten team. Northwestern is ranked 77th nationally and STILL 13th in the conference. That's incredible.

Team Rank Offense Rank Defense Rank
Wisconsin 6 4 11
Michigan State 12 20 10
Ohio State 14 39 9
Michigan 15 6 46
Indiana 26 21 40
Iowa 32 25 49
Maryland 33 38 33
Nebraska 34 54 24
Minnesota 37 27 59
Illinois 38 63 21
Purdue 40 49 41
Penn State 56 59 57
Northwestern 77 116 42
Rutgers 103 83 132

So yeah, wins could be hard to come by this year, and to no surprise, the Big Ten is ranked as the best conference in the country. The good thing is, there are a lot of teams in the 25-to-40 range that NU can play with. In fact, half of the conference falls in that range. Those are all games NU can win, and odds are, the Wildcats will get a few of them.

Improvement on offense?

Josh Rosenblat has a good breakdown of the defense, which KenPom projects will see a slight dropoff this year, but the most notable change is on offense. While Northwestern is still projected to have the worst offense in the Big Ten, its offensive prospects look far better this year than they did last year.

Year Offense Rank Points Per 100 Possessions
2014 309 96.3
2015 116 104.4

While it would be hard for Northwestern to be much worse on offense, that's a huge jump, and I don't necessarily believe that it will happen. To give you an idea of the jump NU would need in pure scoring terms, the Wildcats had an average of 61.6 possessions per game last year, meaning they scored an average of 59.3 points per game at .963 points per possession. With the same number of possessions per game this year, that would mean an improvement of five points per game, at 64.3 points per game. For a team that will likely play a lot of close games — I expect a slight uptick in tempo, but not a huge one — that's a big boost.

It will be interesting to see where the newfound offense comes from. Alex Olah was underutilized last year, so that's an option. The influx of freshmen who can run a more free-flowing offense should help, too. But still, that much of a jump in offensive rating would be really impressive.

The Schedule — What's a success?

Without knowing the final Cancun game and without the Big Ten Tournament, KenPom has Northwestern projected to finish 16-14 and 6-12 in the Big Ten. That's probably not good enough for an NIT berth, but given the terrible non-conference schedule, it would be a pretty big disappointment if NU doesn't finish at least .500. In fact, only the Butler game is chalked up as a loss right now (a second Cancun game against Northern Iowa, at No. 70, would be a toss-up, while NU would be favored against No. 168 Virginia Tech).

While the numbers say 6-12 in the Big Ten, there's an opportunity for NU to do better than that. Almost all of these games are projected to be very close.

Opponent W/L Projected Score Win Percentage
at Rutgers L 68-67 43%
Wisconsin L 66-62 30%
at Michigan State L 70-60 15%
Illinois W 63-62 53%
at Michigan L 69-60 16%
Ohio State L 65-63 41%
at Maryland L 71-64 22%
Purdue W 68-67 55%
at Nebraska L 68-61 23%
at Wisconsin L 70-58 11%
Michigan State L 66-63 39%
Iowa W 70-69 51%
at Minnesota L 69-62 23%
Penn State W 66-64 60%
Indiana L 69-68 48%
at Illinois L 66-59 24%
Michigan L 66-64 41%
Iowa L 73-65 22%

With so many teams in that "pretty good" range of 25 to 40, and with NU expected to be slightly improved, there should be a lot of good games this year, and there will certainly be an opportunity for the Wildcats to pull some upsets. Even though fans, players and coaches alike don't like to hear this, a lot of it will probably come down to luck.

With that in mind, what is a success for you? If NU goes 5-13 but shows major improvement in offensive efficiency, will you be satisfied? Heck, will you be satisfied with 6-12 again, even knowing that the team is probably better?

The short answer is that you probably should be, given that this is a development year. But we'll learn a lot about this team in the non-conference season, where anything more than a couple losses could definitely be considered a disappointment.