Take a deep breath. Compose yourself. Take a second, and think about what has transpired in the world of Northwestern basketball over the past three months.
Yep, this stunning turnaround has been unbelievable in a completely literal sense of the word. Not a soul, even those within the program, could have expected this. Before we delve into a bit of analytics, just realize how astonishing the month of January really was.
Now, what exactly has gone into this team’s recent success? All fingers will point to the defense – as well they should. But what has happened with this team is more about a mentality than anything else. It’s about a group of players who have found, in addition to the much-discussed defensive identity, a belief; a belief in the system, a belief in their coach, a belief in each other, and a belief in themselves.
That belief did manifest itself on the defensive end, and defense has been a major ingredient in all five Big Ten wins. But defense wasn’t going to win five games on its own. Instead, that belief has carried over to the offensive end.
The overall season statistics are still ugly: 315th in adjusted offensive efficiency, 306th in effective field goal percentage, and 315th and 261st in three and two-point field goal percentage respectively.
But the Wildcats Saturday posted a points-per-possession rate of over 1.00 against non-Mississippi Valley State opposition for the first time since November. The overbearing metrics will say that’s a bit fluky – and maybe some of the three-point shooting is – but there’s evidence to suggest that there’s genuine improvement.
Northwestern shot 50 percent on two-pointers Wednesday in its upset of Wisconsin, and 48 percent on Saturday in Minneapolis. Not only is that above the Wildcats’ season average, but more importantly, Alex Olah’s contributions to those numbers were meager at best. Northwestern’s season leader (among qualified players) in two-point field goal percentage shot a combined 1-6 from inside the arc in the two games.
What this means is that Northwestern is finding a way to get the ball to the rim – and more importantly, to convert from close range – without relying on the big Romanian. This isn’t to say that Olah isn’t a crucial part of NU's offense, it’s to note that this offense is finally generating open shots. The second play on this string of highlights, which led to a Sanjay Lumpkin layup, is a prime example:
But more generally, let’s go back to the idea of belief, and specifically, players’ belief in themselves. A big reason for the uptick in offense in these past two wins has been confidence.
Throughout the season, players have said various things to the effect of ‘coach tells me to keep shooting, and that gives me confidence.’ And that’s all well and good. But it’s one thing to keep shooting, and it’s another thing to have true belief in your individual offensive game.
And that’s what a lot of these players have captured. JerShon Cobb’s play on the offensive end in the first half Saturday was more fluid than it’s been all season. Kale Abrahamson’s trigger was not only quick, it was in rhythm. Tre Demps was… well, he was the Tre Demps that fans have come to know and love over the past month. And Drew Crawford was simply sensational. He was more aggressive than he’s been all season. He not only looked to put the ball on the floor, but was relentless in looking for his shot; and that relentlessness is one of the greatest signs of confidence.
This team now believes in Chris Collins’ offense. For two months, these players were hesitant, still feeling it out, trying to understand its nuances. That’s not to say they doubted their coach and his scheme, but it’s impossible to fully believe in a system until glimpses of its intended results can be seen. The players are now seeing those, and now they’re comfortable. And now that they’re comfortable, they are able to express their own abilities within it.
The extent of those abilities is another story. An offense can only go as far as the players that are running it take it, so despite the relative outbursts lately, the possibilities for this season are limited.
But an offense that once looked more like that of a poorly coached high school team now looks cohesive, coherent and smooth. And it looks like one that, in partnership with a borderline dominant defense, could realistically lead this team to a finish in the top half of the Big Ten.