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Examining Northwestern's three-point-fueled offense

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Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Sixteen minutes into the first quarter against North Carolina, it looked like Northwestern could be pull off the impossible. After Scottie Lindsay completed a three-point play, Northwestern had built a six-point lead on the road against the No. 9 team in the country. Of course, UNC closed out the half with a 14-1 run to restore order to the universe, but that game and recent results have shown that Northwestern has made significant strides on offense. Statistically, Northwestern looks better offensively than at any point during the Chris Collins era, and it’s worth taking a deeper dive to see what’s changed.

Northwestern is shooting 39.9 percent from three. That stat alone is enough to explain most of Northwestern’s rise from 94th in KenPom offensive efficiency to 54th to start the year. Northwestern is getting 37.7 percent of its scoring from three, which is 32nd in the nation and well above average. The team’s scoring from two-pointers and free throws are both below the D-1 average, leaving Northwestern mostly dependent on outside shooting. This has made them very streaky, but it also makes the team very dangerous. In the game against UNC, for example, the Wildcats were down 10 early in the half until they hit three consecutive three-pointers and came back almost immediately.

While Northwestern has recently been a jump-shooting team, the squad’s reliance on the three is at the highest level since Collins took over. In the last two seasons, the team got 33 percent of its scoring from three, but the Wildcats have ramped that up to the aforementioned rate of 37.7 percent. Percentage of points from three and three-point attempts have gone up in college basketball this year, possibly due to the shortened shot clock, but Northwestern has significantly outpaced the overall numbers. Northwestern is averaging over 24 three-point attempts per game and is second in the Big Ten in three-point attempts per game, just behind Purdue.

While on the surface it seems like Northwestern is doing this against poor opposition, it did go 9-20 against UNC and 10-26 against Virginia Tech, leaving it at 41.3 percent against the two best teams it has faced. Against Columbia, which Pomeroy ranks above Virginia Tech, Northwestern tossed up 26 threes and made them at an impressive 50 percent clip. If anything, Northwestern has actually shot better from three against good teams. And as Pomeroy notes, three-point shooting percentage depends much more heavily on the offense's ability than the defense's ability.

When looking at how Northwestern has improved its three-point shooting by four percent from last year, it comes down to the quartet of Bryant McIntosh, Aaron Falzon, Nate Taphorn, and Scottie Lindsey. The loss of Vic Law has hurt the team in many respects, but replacing him with sharpshooters like Falzon and Taphorn has improved Northwestern’s long-range efforts. Interestingly, Northwestern is doing this despite a major slump from its highest-volume three-point shooter, Tre Demps. Demps is shooting under 30 percent from three despite attempting more threes than anybody on the team. Meanwhile, the long-range quartet is shooting an absurd 44.9 percent on 127 attempts to start the year. For these guys, in the immortal words of Aaron Falzon, the rim "looks really big every day".

McIntosh has improved all aspects of his game so far this season, and the improvement of his outside shooting has made him a great all-around scorer. McIntosh has also improved at getting to the rim and hitting midrange jumpers, and he has continued distributing the ball effectively this season. It's fair to say his play has been the most important part of Northwestern's good offensive start. In terms of three-point shooting, Northwestern's main strength, McIntosh has excelled at creating his own space and shooting off the dribble, like he did on this play in overtime against Virginia Tech:

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He's also been good in catch-and-shoot situations:

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These shots are not a result of genius offensive playmaking, but they work as long as McIntosh can make them at a high rate. Most of McIntosh's three-point opportunities come when he has good looks, and he doesn't often force three-pointers like some college point guards (he's attempted fewer than Falzon and Demps). As a result, McIntosh is shooting 50 percent from three, and his long-range shot selection through the first eight games has been yet another area of major improvement this year.

Aaron Falzon has had a very interesting start to his career. Falzon was thrust into the starting lineup once Vic Law got injured and rewarded Collins with a 20-point debut to start his career. Falzon's three-point shooting is his biggest weapon, but he has not been as consistent as McIntosh. That might be because shooting seems like his only weapon. Falzon has taken 75 percent of his field goal attempts from beyond the arc. However, his ability to hit threes in transition and in halfcourt sets remains extremely valuable:

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Here, Falzon uses his quick release to hit a huge three-pointer in transition. Falzon can hit in transition, halfcourt sets, and with one shoe, but his shooting has been streaky. Contrary to the team overall, Falzon has shot significantly worse from three in games against decent teams, and his struggles against UNC and Missouri eventually led to him getting benched ahead of the Virginia Tech game. However, Falzon responded against SIU Edwardsville with five electrifying three-pointers, and his skills will force Collins to give him minutes, even if he struggles on the other end of the floor.

Scottie Lindsey has been in the starting lineup after his 26-point barrage against New Orleans, an interesting deviation because it puts the 6-foot-5 Sanjay Lumpkin at the four, something Collins did not want to do much of prior to the season. Having Lindsey on the floor with Falzon at the four leaves Northwestern thin on defense and on the glass though. Lindsey's playing time will thus come down to his shooting. He will see time at the two regardless of performance, but if he can prove to be a better shooter than Falzon — or, rather, on nights when he is — he'll take minutes at the three too. So far, Lindsey is shooting 42.8 percent from three, and he has the potential to be a game-changing shooter.

Nate Taphorn has been rightly maligned for his defensive work this season, but he is performing his offensive role just fine. At this point, Taphorn is essentially Chris Collins' three-point ace. He's almost like a more polarized version of Falzon. He shoots 86 percent of his field goals from beyond the arc. While he does not bring defensive awareness or rebounding help, he has made 48.1 percent of his threes to start the year. Crucially, like Falzon, Taphorn has proven to be a capable shooter in transition this year, not just in the half court:

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Taphorn has always been able to make open threes, and as long as that continues, Northwestern's offense and his minutes will benefit. Taphorn's shot selection is also quite good, as he rarely hurts the Wildcats by taking poor shots.

Northwestern has the pieces to sustain its great three-point shooting. Regression still seems likely, but it will not be as severe as one might expect. McIntosh is the only player who has an unsustainable percentage, and it could easily be counterbalanced if Demps can get going again from beyond the arc. Taphorn, Lindsey, and Falzon are all great three-point shooters and could all average over 40 percent, which should keep Northwestern's jump-shooting offense afloat at times.

That being said, the dangers of a jump-shooting offense are very obvious. When Northwestern faces tougher Big Ten defenses, they will have a night where the threes won't fall, and the offense starts to stagnate a bit. Northwestern's ball movement has been solid thus far — the Wildcats have posted a 64.3 percent assist percentage — but that won't help them if they have an off shooting night. Alex Olah finally looked good in the post in his last game against SIU Edwardsville, but it's SIU Edwardsville, so who knows if that means anything. Joey van Zegeren has the occasional dunk, but he has not provided much on offense. Sanjay Lumpkin is doing his best to get involved offensively, and he made a clutch corner three against Virginia Tech, but he is still only used on just 11.2 percent of Northwestern's possessions. Outside of its three-point shooting, the team has relied on McIntosh getting to the basket and Demps' midrange game. So far, that has been enough to get Northwestern to 7-1, especially when McIntosh makes insane plays like this one:

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However, it remains to be seen whether the offense can keep up this production, especially against better competition. Ideally, Northwestern's offense would look like the first half against Missouri when they were hitting threes, getting buckets in transition and making plays like this in the halfcourt:

idealoffense?

Here, Scottie Lindsey gets the ball to Gavin "The Energizer" Skelly, who makes a great handoff to Demps as he beats the defender for an easy basket in the lane. Northwestern needs more of these higher-percentage baskets if it wants to ease the burden on its outside shooting. The three-pointers are fine, and perhaps even good, but for the Wildcats to maintain their top-50 offense, they'll likely have to become more efficient getting to the rim.

The Wildcats' problem is that they do not have the defensive strength to stop opposing teams when their shooting goes cold. Northwestern blew huge leads to Missouri and Virginia Tech because of this situation, and they will be similarly punished in Big Ten play if this continues.

However, it's not like Chris Collins has much of a choice at this point. His squad is designed to shoot, and he cannot change that fact. The coaching staff has done a great job of teaching good shot selection and ball movement, and it's completely justified for Northwestern to rely on its main skill. While no NCAA team likes to depend on hitting 40 percent of 24 three-point attempts per game, this strategy can also be immensely successful when everything falls into place.