Northwestern played at a frenetic pace against Mississippi Valley State on Sunday, posting 101 points -- the most any Northwestern team has scored since 1990 -- on 78 possessions. While MVSU is a terrible basketball team, it was refreshing to see the 'Cats take care of business and finally play a worry-free game against an inferior opponent. Particularly, seeing the offense click on all cylinders (granted, against a team ranked 341st out of 351 Division 1 teams) was a relief after the profound struggles Northwestern has had on the offensive end so far this season.
But let's be clear here. Mississippi Valley State is, according to KenPom, the third-worst team in all of college basketball. Sure, Northwestern beat them by 52 points, but when an opponent is that awful, you really can't put much (if any) weight into any statistics from that game. It was an aberration in the truest sense of the word -- Northwestern hadn't scored more than 68 points in any of its previous 8 games and its largest margin of victory before Sunday's shellacking was 13 in a game against the Ivy League's Brown Bears.
Perhaps the biggest deviation from the norm for the Wildcats was the tempo at which they played. NU's adjusted tempo of 63.1 is 308th in Division 1 and its average possession length of 18.4 is 203rd. Those stats certainly account for some of the painful droughts Northwestern has suffered on offense.
When said droughts occur, what usually happens is this: Northwestern goes into their first-choice offensive set, a high pick and roll featuring Bryant McIntosh. When his first and second option are taken away, he often passes off to the other perimeter ball handler, often Tre Demps. Demps fancies his dribbling skills, and he often bounces the life out of the possession for what seems like an eternity before looking to penetrate and hopefully, just maybe, find an open shooter behind the 3-point line. But the possessions far too often end up in a contested, step-back long 2-pointer with not much time left on the shot clock.
If you're a Northwestern fan who's tired of seeing this and wants the team to play at a quicker pace, you're not alone. In general, playing at a quick tempo means that open looks are available and available early, which is usually a sign of a well-functioning, fluid offense. The mid 2000's Phoenix Suns are perhaps basketball's best example of this, a team that famously looked for a shot in "seven seconds or less." While the Suns' pedestrian defense held those teams back from ever reaching the NBA Championship, their up-tempo style tired teams out and made them one of the NBA's best offenses for years.
But college basketball is different than the NBA in so many ways, including the tempo-offensive efficiency correlation. Of the top ten offensives in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency, none rank in the top 30 in adjusted tempo stats. Wisconsin, a 10-1 team ranked fourth in KenPom and fifth in the AP poll, plays even slower than Northwestern does (!!!) -- the Badgers play at an adjusted tempo of 62.8, good for 317th in D1. Clearly, playing fast doesn't necessarily mean you're playing effectively. Of the top ten teams in adjusted tempo, only Iona ranks in the top 70 in efficiency, at 12th, and ironically, Mississippi Valley State, the same team that put up 48 points against Northwestern, plays at the fifth-fastest pace in the country.
This team has said on record that they want running to be their identity. If that's still the case, Sunday was the first time they've come close to playing how they want to. However, to suggest that speeding up the pace at which Northwestern plays will automatically result in better offense is setting yourself up for disappointment. This offense is pretty pick-and-roll heavy, and it's usually motion-style offenses that are able to play up tempo for an extended period of time.
Because Collins wants to play quicker, expect this team's tempo stats to improve. Just don't expect 78 possessions per game, because as much as it would help, not every game comes against the Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils.