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Wildcat Shootaround: What Do We Know Through Six Games?

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Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

It's six games into the season and Northwestern sits at 5-1. We asked ourselves what we've learned in the early portion of the year about a variety of topics, from individual players to recruiting.

Sanjay the Scorer

Josh Rosenblat: Not much has been pretty through six games for Northwestern. That much is clear. But the biggest revelation for the Wildcats is the offensive performance of sophomore forward Sanjay Lumpkin. Through the first four games of the season, Lumpkin was averaging 10.75 points per game, up from last season's 3.8.

Whenever Chris Collins speaks about Lumpkin, he always makes it a point to talk about how Lumpkin's impact is felt most on the defensive end and on the boards and that the Wildcats never run plays for the wingman.

So far this season, Lumpkin is making a major impact on the offensive end for Northwestern. He is the fifth highest scorer on the team, but is the team's most efficient player with a KenPom-calculated offensive rating of 137.0, good enough for 54th in the nation. But, reflecting Collins' words, he's only used on fewer than 12 percent of the team's offensive possessions.

Of course Lumpkin's 79.5 percent eFG (fifth in the nation) isn't sustainable. But, when looking at his shot chart, Lumpkin has shown the type of offensive game that emphasizes efficiency.

lumpkin-shot-chart
Graphic from Shot Analytics.

His shot chart is pretty much impeccable from a shot-location standpoint. Lumpkin has taken just one shot outside the lane that wasn't a three-pointer. His improved strength and athleticism have made him a force at the rim and an increased knowledge of the inner-workings of Collins' offense have gotten him good shots inside the lane. He's also played well off of Bryant McIntosh's and Vic Law's drives, stepping outside to knock down threes.

Lumpkin has also cut down his turnovers per game by more than half (1.7 to 0.8) and is getting to the free-throw line more.

But against Miami (Ohio) and Northern Iowa in Cancun, Lumpkin largely disappeared. In the two games, Lumpkin shot the ball just twice. Moving forward, Collins may need to ditch the hard-working narrative with Lumpkin and put more responsibility on him offensively.

Lucky From Deep?

Jason Dorow: Northwestern wouldn't be 5-1 right now without a little luck, at least that's what the stats say. NU is currently fourth in the country in KenPom's luck rating with a score of +.277. And a good portion of that luck has come on the three point shot.

Last season Northwestern attempted more three pointers than any other Big Ten team, yet they shot 1.2 percentage points below any other conference foe with a dreadful 30.6 percent.

While the Wildcats' efficiency from deep still isn't great, their reliance on the three has depreciated slightly. Just over 37 percent of their field goals this season have been threes, compared to their 42.4 percent mark from a year ago.

That margin illustrates the small strides that the offense has made since last season. They attack the basket more often and get to foul line at a slightly higher rate. Less often Tre Demps or JerShon Cobb is forced to chuck up a contested three-pointer or mid-range jumper. The flow and pick-and-roll game is still developing, but the team has made some improvement.

As a result of the offensive progression, Northwestern is getting better looks from deep. They shot 35 percent on the long ball in their first six games, good for an eFG rate of 53 percent. So are the Wildcats that much better at shooting the three now or are they getting lucky?

It's probably a mix of the two. Tre Demps' three-point shooting percentage is down from 34 last year to 29 percent while Bryant McIntosh is knocking down an unsustainable 47 percent. Vic Law is hovering around a dismal 21 percent, but Scottie Lindsey has made half of his threes. It may be a result of the soft schedule, but overall the team is getting better looks from deep.

Eventually, there will be a regression to the mean, and we will know exactly how good this team is shooting the long ball. But right now, it appears Northwestern will be more efficient shooting the three, and they won't have to rely on the three as much as they did last year. That's a good sign for the Wildcats as Chris Collins tries to formulate the right offensive scheme for NU.

JerShon Cobb Looks Out-of-Sync

cobb
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Henry Bushnell: One of the more worrying themes from Northwestern's first six games has been the play of senior guard and captain JerShon Cobb. Coming into this season, Cobb was considered by many to be NU's best player. Some even thought he was a top-100 player nationally, and a "legitimate NBA prospect." So far, he's been anything but, and he's a big reason NU's offense looks lost.

Of course, the overall offensive issues can't be fully explained by one player's under-performance. But NU needs another playmaker. At the moment, Bryant McIntosh is "the guy." When the ball is in his hands, the Wildcats occasionally look capable of scoring. When it's not, they simply don't. The offense completely stalls.

Last season, Cobb was one of those playmakers. This season, he hasn't been because he hasn't been able to beat players off the dribble. Take a look at Cobb's shot distribution so far this year alongside last year's:

cobb-shots
Data and graphics via Shot Analytics

Last year (right), over 15 percent of Cobb's shots were at the rim; 41 percent were mid-range attempts, and 44 percent were 3-pointers. This year (left), just 9 percent of Cobb's shots have been at the rim, compared to 38 percent mid-range and 53-percent from beyond the arc. Even in his one good game, against Brown, of his seven shots, four were 3-pointers, and the other three were 2-point jumpers from above the foul line.

Last season, Cobb shot far too many mid-range jumpers - we know that. But at least he balanced them with an ability to get to the rim. That also allowed him to create for others. His 18.1 assist rate was second on the team among players who got significant minutes. This year, it's 7.9 - second worst on the team among players getting significant minutes - and that's likely a product of his lack of penetration. His offensive rating is a lowly 83.4, a full 14 points lower than last season's.

The other startling thing has been how little Cobb has been used by coach Chris Collins. Cobb has played less than half of available minutes - even fewer than the low-20s estimate Collins gave after the win over Houston Baptist - and even when on the floor, his usage rates are down.

Back in October, I explored Cobb's recurrent battle with injuries, and his recovery from offseason meniscus surgery. He told me that he felt 100% physically, and that he also had cleared that mental hurdle that all players coming back from injury have to clear. But I'm still skeptical. He looks a step slow, and its affecting his performance.

Even if we accept his affinity for the long 2, which is decidedly inefficient, Cobb can still be one of Northwestern's better offensive players. But only if he can start getting to the rim at at least the same rate at which he got there last year.

Stealing Away? Not Really.

Chris Johnson: It's not surprising that, over the first six games of the season, Northwestern has played better defense than offense. This team lacks shooters, playmakers and pretty much everything else you need to form a scoreboard-rattling outfit.

As of Monday night, the Wildcats ranked 203rd in the country in points scored per possession and 68th in points allowed per possession. That latter figure is okay, relatively speaking, but the Wildcats did rank 14th nationally - and fifth among Big Ten teams during conference play - in defensive efficiency a year ago.

One thing that sticks out about Northwestern's D so far is that it's not forcing any steals. That's not totally correct, but consider this: Only one Division I team is swiping the ball away from their opponents at a lower rate this season, according to Kenpom.com. The Delaware Blue Hens - an NCAA Tournament team last year, mind you - have recorded pilfers on 4.4 percent of their defensive possessions. The Wildcats are at 4.8 percent.

Northwestern's worst performance, steals-wise, so far came in the loss to Northern Iowa (0). The Wildcats recorded their most steals (6) in a Nov. 20 win over North Florida.

Will the Wildcats start forcing more turnovers over the coming months? Maybe, but don't expect a significant increase. The Wildcats ranked 324th in steal percentage (6.9) last season, and there don't appear to be any indications Chris Collins plans to shake up his team's defensive scheme or approach. Northwestern didn't turn over its opponents a lot in Collins' first year, and I wouldn't expect that to change.

So prepare for another year of largely steal-free defense.

A Talent Gap That Needs Filling

tuttle
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Trahan: During Northwestern's blowout loss to Northern Iowa, it became clear what the Wildcats were missing. Well, they're missing a lot of things, but most importantly they're missing someone like Seth Tuttle. The Panthers' star forward was very clearly the best player on the floor in that game, and he provided a scoring option inside that NU just doesn't have.

Josh Rosenblat and I were discussing the lack of a Tuttle-like player after the Illinois game on Saturday, and the fact that NU has never really had someone like that (at least, in recent years) is pretty crazy. How can Northern Iowa get someone that's obviously that talented, that's a force on both ends of the court, and Northwestern never can? And more importantly, does NU have anyone coming in that can be its Seth Tuttle?

I don't know if Chris Collins is a good coach yet. I feel like a lot of people have formed opinions on this either way, and I don't think you can really tell. I've been pretty critical of Collins at times, but that's been more of a backlash against people who claim that once he has "his players," he'll be fine. The thing is, these new guys are "his players" and there doesn't appear to be anyone at forward who can take over the game.

For Collins to win in Evanston, someone like that is going to have to step forward. Can Vic Law be that guy if he refines his offensive game? Can Dererk Pardon, who is by all accounts, still improving? Or what about Aaron Falzon, who may be the best bet, considering how good of an offensive player he's supposed to be?

Right now, it's a mystery, but someone like that needs to come into this program soon. Unless Collins gets himself a Seth Tuttle, the dream of going to the NCAA Tournament is going to remain just that.