clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Northwestern's offense: Shooters who can't shoot

Northwestern is getting open shots, but no one can knock them down.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

There's a phenomenon in basketball -- at both the college and NBA levels -- where teams and players can gain a reputation that sticks, regardless of contrary evidence. For example, Grantland's Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe discussed this notion in regard to the Los Angeles Clippers' Danny Granger.

"If you're a veteran and you're respected and you've done stuff in the NBA and current NBA players have watched highlights of you doing stuff -- there's no way to statistically, I don't think -- but I think the League is two years slow in realizing, Oh, I don't have to guard that guy he can't shoot anymore. I don't have to pay a lot of attention to him. I think there is that veteran aura that sticks to you for awhile... People still look at Danny Granger as a star," Lowe said around the 48-minute mark of the podcast.

The threat of Granger from the outside far outweighs his actual value. Granger hasn't shot 40 percent from three since the '08-'09 season.

Fans, coaches, executives, players and the media all fall victim to this notion. Once a player or team is viewed in a certain light, it's hard to escape that stereotype. After 13 seasons with Bill Carmody at the helm, Northwestern had developed the reputation of a team running a Princeton offense. The offense was beautiful to see in action when executed to perfection. Defenses had to defend against back cuts, as well as off-ball screens leading to copious amounts of open looks. During the '11-'12 season, 52.2 percent of Northwestern's catch-and-shoot possessions were unguarded. The offense was built for shooters to thrive, for defenses to recognize they were getting punished from deep only to over pursue and relinquish a layup on the back end. The Princeton is a cerebral offense, one that relies on a players' ability to read defenses and make the correct cut. Once the correct cut was made, the onus was put on the ball handler to make a punctual pass.

What made Northwestern's offense formidable--in select seasons where they were indeed formidable--was the ability to knock down open shots; to take advantage of the opportunities the Princeton gave them. While some argue that Carmody lost his job because his best player (Drew Crawford) was injured for the year and another probable contributor (JerShon Cobb) was suspended, the numbers say otherwise.

Northwestern didn't have viable shooters. It goes against the stereotype, but a team that had been known for beating superior teams with three-point barrages didn't have the shooters.

In Chris Collins' first season, he inherited Carmody's last team in Evanston. And he came in with a new philosophy on offense, it was supposed to be "more free flowing" and "up-tempo." It is the offense his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski, ran at Duke. It was motion-based and relied on the individual skill sets of each player.

While Duke is atop the college basketball world, it isn't far-fetched to compare Northwestern's offense this season to that of Duke's in Collins' last season on the bench in '12-'13. When comparing the per-game possession types for those two seasons along with the '12-'13 Northwestern season, it is clear that Collins ran Northwestern's offense the way Duke does.

There's a high volume of spot up opportunities in all three of the offenses, but in Collins' and Krzyzewski's offenses the spot ups are followed by pick and rolls, isolations and transition possessions. Carmody's, on the other hand, relied more heavily on cuts and screens. But both offenses rely on the same thing: players who can make open shots. While stats like points per possession, adjusted offensive efficiency and other tempo-free metrics can be a strong assessment of offensive prowess, they do not go as far as to showcase how well a team runs an offense or how effective a system is in getting players makable shots. For example, Illinois' adjusted offensive efficiency rating is 103.5 and 194th in the nation.

By comparison, Northwestern is at 95.3 and 320th in the country. Clearly Illinois, although not great by any stretch, is a better offensive team than Northwestern. The numbers are there. But that does not mean that Illinois runs better offense than Northwestern. Here's another way to look at the two offenses: On catch-and-shoot possessions, only 29.4 percent of Illinois' shot attempts are unguarded. In comparison, 47.8 percent of Northwestern's catch-and-shoot attempts are unguarded. If an offensive system is valued by giving players open shots, Northwestern has a better offense.

Key: The size of each circle correlates to the percentage of unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts each team has. When hovering over the circles, the first row contains the percentage of catch-and-shoot shots that are unguarded and the next row contains the adjusted field goal percentage on those shots followed by points per possession.

Northwestern actually had the highest percentage of their catch-and-shoot shots unguarded in the Big Ten, but the team was the third worst in the conference at converting those open attempts in terms of points per possession.

In this aspect, Collins' and Carmody's offenses were similar. Each offense enabled players to shoot a bunch of open jump shots and during the past two season, they couldn't hit shots.

Key: The size of each circle correlates to the percentage of catch-and-shoot attempts each team had compared to other offensive possessions. When hovering over the circles, the first row contains the percentage of catch-and-shoot shots each team had and the next row contains the percentage of unguarded attempts followed by adjusted field goal percentage.

In '11-'12, Northwestern was unbelievably effective on unguarded shots as they shot a 94th percentile nationally that season as they scored 1.316 points per possession on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers. It just shows how much any offensive system that relies on outside shooting needs players to capitalize on open opportunities and this season and last, few individuals had any success in doing so. What, then, can that be attributed to? This is where discussion of the offensive systems themselves become relevant. Sure, both Carmody's Princeton offense and Collins' motion offense produced open looks for their respective teams but there are many other factors that contribute to the differences.

That year, Crawford shot a whopping adjusted field goal percentage of 80.4 on unguarded catch-and-shoot shots. But in '13-'14, he is shooting a 50 percent, the lowest of his career.

Was it just a down year for the Third Team All-Big Ten performer? Or was there something more that had to do with Collins' offense?

When extrapolated to encompass the entirety of the team, the answer to this question -- as most things are -- is a combination.

Northwestern's offensive issues this season were caused by both personnel issues and Collins' offensive system.

Players such as Nate Taphorn and Dave Sobolewski came into the season looking to make an impact from outside the arc and both finished the regular season dismally. Sobolewski scored an unprecedented .545 points per unguarded jump shot and Taphorn scored just .913 on those attempts.

JerShon Cobb and Kale Abrahamson, though, were solid on unguarded shots, but they weren't good enough to salvage the team's poor shooting.

A coach who doesn't have players who can make open jump shots -- a quality that exceeds any specific system -- cannot be successful. As Collins said many times during press conferences this season, he was trying to do the best job he could with what he had. And for that reason, Northwestern's offense failed this season.

Sure, Collins could have been a little more creative in crafting sets to fit his team, but the first-year head coach has time to hone his craft.

Northwestern's offense during the '13-'14 season wasn't a success, but it wasn't a failure either. It showed promise of what might become of Northwestern basketball, a skilled team that likes to attack the basket and kick out to shooters on the wings and in the corners. Now all that needs to happen is for shooters to make shots.