The University of Virginia has one of the finest basketball programs in the land. The Cavaliers have won at least 30 games in back-to-back seasons and are ranked in the Top 10 this year.
So why did Chris Collins compare his Wildcats to Tony Bennett's squad last year?
Well, it wasn't always such a fun time in Charlottesville. In Bennett's first two years at the helm, he went an even 31-31. Collins' mark of 29-36 is worse, but it's not that much worse. It's not as if he's getting blown out of the water by a guy who's now recognized as one of the top coaches in the nation and has won plenty of awards to show for that.
But in year three, Bennett's bunch made the jump that shall not be named. The jump that Northwestern has never made. The jump that, some people think, is possible -- though still unlikely -- this year.
Virginia, at 22-9, made the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid after being bounced from the ACC Tournament in the quarterfinals.
So can Northwestern do the same? Maybe, but probably not.
The biggest reason for doubt is the ridiculously weak non-conference schedule, which we've debated both in writing and on podcast. Virginia in the 2011-2012 season went 13-1 in its non-conference slate, a mark Northwestern could approach, but that included some huge wins:
- Nationally-televised win over then-No. 15 Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge
- Double-digit win over NIT Quarterfinalist Drexel
- Twenty-point win over a 24-win George Mason squad
- Wins against two Power 5 teams (a 24-win Oregon team and an NIT-bound LSU team, with both wins coming on the road)
There's no way Northwestern earns these quality wins unless they shock UNC (which Kenpom gives them a surprisingly-high 26-percent chance to do), then beats the winner of Missouri-Kansas St. to take the CBE Classic crown, and then beats everyone else on their schedule. But if Northwestern proves that it is a good enough team to do that, then there's no real reason to be having this conversation -- they'll be in the driver's seat to get their first-ever tournament berth.
In all likelihood, Northwestern will lose to UNC, struggle with the loser of Missouri-Kansas St., and perhaps even struggle with teams like Virginia Tech, an ACC cellar-dweller. That's a more reasonable expectation of this team.
The chances to pull off impressive resume-building wins, though, are minimal. The committee won't be impressed by wins over most of Northwestern's opponents -- Virginia Tech, Missouri and Kansas St. included. In fact, North Carolina is the only team on the non-conference schedule ranked higher than Northwestern is (51), and the only team in the Top 100.
For juxtaposition, UVA played (and beat) four such teams during its non-con slate: Drexel (42), Michigan (23), Oregon (56) and LSU (97). That allowed for UVA to make up for its one bad loss in the first half of the year, to a bad TCU team. If Northwestern loses to a bad team, it doesn't have many chances to make up for that. So, at least in this part of the comparison, Virginia has an advantage.
Where Virginia really holds advantage, though, is the huge step forward it took defensively in year three under Bennett. In this first two years, Bennett's Virginia squad ranked 71st and 61st in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, respectively. In his third year, that ranking was sixth, thanks to major improvements in Bennett's signature "pack-line" defense and slowing the tempo way down on offense, dropping out of the top 300 in average possession length for the first time in his three years there. The Cavaliers haven't finished outside the top 25 in defensive efficiency since and were first last year.
It is tough to see Northwestern improving majorly on the defensive end of the floor, though. Chris Collins has been adamant about pushing the ball more, the exact opposite of what Bennett did at Virginia. Plus, Collins' defensive scheme took a huge step backwards last year, ranking 145th in adjusted efficiency after ranking 14th in his first year at the helm.
So that leaves the offense to help make up for the defenses' relative ineptitude, and that remains a question. The biggest question, though is: Who can be "the guy?" For UVA in 2011, it was Mike Scott, who averaged 18 points and over eight rebounds per game. Despite the fact that UVA loved to slow the game down, he managed to put up terrific numbers offensively, and he finished 10th in Kenpom POY standings. Does Northwestern have that guy? Is it Tre Demps? When I look at this roster, I don't see a guy who can give you 18 per game. Additionally, UVA had current Cleveland Cavalier Joe Harris as a fantastic secondary scorer and Sammy Zeglinski as a deadeye shooting threat who, although went through his struggles, still managed to put up nearly nine points per game. This offense was by no means great, but Scott, Harris or Zeglinski could often manage to save it during droughts.
But there's reason to be hopeful on the offensive end. Northwestern had three guys average double-digits last year, whereas Virginia only had two in 2011-12. Northwestern's offense was also more efficient last year than UVA's was in 2012, and the Wildcats should see an increase there with new weapons like Aaron Falzon and improvement from its large group of returners from last year.
Another reason to be optimistic is that Northwestern brings back seven of its eight top scorers from last year. UVA brought six of its top seven back from the year before they made the tournament. If Northwestern's players improve as much as UVA's players did that year -- Scott ascended to All-American status, Akil Mitchell became a lockdown post defender and Harris became a more viable offensive threat -- big things could happen in Evanston. Additionally, the team played 10 guys 10-plus minutes per game. Chris Collins has talked about how improved the depth on his team is several times, and fans could expect to see almost that many guys playing that many minutes, at least early in the year.
Overall, Virginia made the tournament in Bennett's third year because of an almost unheard-of leap on defense, several quality non-conference wins, and a guy named Mike Scott who could be counted on to get baskets when his team needed him to. Those three aspects probably aren't present on this Northwestern team this year. But other aspects -- lots of depth and returning experience are. The odds aren't really in favor of Northwestern making the leap this year, especially with the schedule the way it is, but if they make that leap, it will be made in a much different manner than UVA made it.