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How much improvement should we expect from Northwestern in 2015?

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Northwestern won back to back Big Ten games against pretty good teams. The Wildcats are getting better. But how much should we expect NU to improve next year?

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern, in case you hadn’t realized, is young. Shocking, I know.

Northwestern’s KenPom effective experience rating has fluctuated between 280-320 this year, somewhere in the bottom 20 percent of Division I. For a lot of programs, this isn’t a problem. I doubt Duke cares a whole lot about being 283rd. I’m even surer Kentucky doesn’t care about being all the way down at 336. But those teams, as the cliché goes, reload instead of rebuild. Northwestern is in year two of a process of building a program. The team is inexperienced and with that comes growing pains.

With Bryant McIntosh being on his All-Freshman Team grind, Scottie Lindsey really coming along in the last two games, Gavin Skelly earning more minutes, and even Vic Law showing an outside shot (!?), the eyes of NU fans are getting awfully big when they look at the future.

Last week, I looked at the development of freshmen into upperclassmen. This week, let’s blow up the scale a bit and look at teams as a whole. When I first started researching for this article, NU’s experience came in rated at 310, so I went back to 2014 and looked at teams rated 301-320 (with the exception of Abilene Christian since 2014 was their first year in Division I) and looked at how they played that year and how they’re doing this year.

First, here are those teams, who we’ll call Group A:

Clemson, Wofford, Virginia Tech, Western Illinois, Oklahoma, Columbia, Alabama State, High Point, Loyola Chicago, Oral Roberts, Lehigh, West Virginia, Lafayette, North Carolina, Tulane, Samford, TCU, Indiana, Army

Progress is (almost) inevitable

Young teams almost always get better unless there are some kinds of extenuating circumstances. Unless all your underclassmen leave (see Michigan) or your team had a season-long fluke (see Nebraska), teams get better.

You don’t usually see crazy growth, but solid growth is the norm. On average, Group A increased their KenPom rankings an average of 18 percent from last year to this year. The big winner? TCU, who finished 2014 all the way down at 234, is now sitting at 53, a 77 percent ranking boost from the year prior. The biggest loser was Clemson, who lost a number of non-seniors from its 2014 team, most notably K.J. McDaniels, and is now ranked 84, down from their final ranking of 50 in 2014.

But the usual story was teams making steady steps, even if their freshmen weren’t notable. Wofford (302 in experience), Loyola Chicago (309), Lehigh, and Tulane (315) all saw double-digit percentage increases in their rankings from 2014 to 2015 despite having freshmen classes who didn’t touch the level of hype NU’s class had. Granted it might be easier to go from being ranked 282 to 197 like Tulane did than for Northwestern to go from 125 to 100, but it should still be comforting to Northwestern that even bad young teams usually get notably better.

Still, it might help if we looked just at teams who were closer to Northwestern’s current KenPom ranking. I looked at teams rated 150 or better in KenPom in 2014 who still had similar experience ratings as Northwestern does this year and found four teams to add: NC State (328 in experience), Colorado (343), Texas (346), and Tulsa (295). Combining these with the six teams from Group A who were ranked in the top 150 (Clemson, Oklahoma, Columbia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana), and we have a pretty good sample size. Let’s call these 10 teams Group B. The improvement of Group B mirrored the improvement of Group A, as these 10 schools improved their KenPom rank by an average of 15 percent.

Applying data to Northwestern

Northwestern this year is outperforming teams that had similar levels of experience last year. Most teams as young as Northwestern were pretty far from NU's 125 ranking in KenPom, and that’s very promising. If the Wildcats can win two more games before the season wraps up, they’ll put themselves in a position where if they match the trend of improvement these numbers show, they might well be playing postseason basketball next year. It wouldn’t be the NCAA Tournament, but it would be something, which would be a meaningful step in the right direction.

But if there’s one troubling fact about how Northwestern’s season compares to the teams mentioned, it’s that NU’s record against good teams this year is abysmal. It took NU 93 days from the start of the season to get its first win over a top 100 KenPom team (Iowa). As it stands, NU is 2-14 against those teams, a .125 winning percentage. Group A went 55-141 (.281) and Group B went 95-118 (.446) against top 100 teams.

Most teams in Groups A and B who recorded 3 or less wins against the top 100 did worse than the average rate of improvement. Simply put, beating teams like Elon and North Florida aren’t giving you any meaningful clues about how teams will play down the line. Nothing proves potential like beating the big boys (take look at Michael Stern’s breakdown of this).

So what’s the gist of all this fairly esoteric information? Northwestern will be better next year, especially if Aaron Falzon/Jordan Ash/Dererk Pardon can make meaningful impacts. But, even with this last great week, don’t expect them to move mountains. It’s still a long road to hoe for Northwestern to make it to the land of milk and honey.