Over the next two weeks, beginning Monday, March 23, we'll be holding an extended Inside NU roundtable to rehash and analyze Northwestern men's basketball's 2014/15 season. We'll pose one question every day -- some general, some more specific; some looking back, some looking ahead -- and a group of our writers will respond. Additionally, over the coming days, we'll have separate articles breaking down some of the topics in more depth.
Yesterday, we discussed Bryant McIntosh's impressive freshman campaign and his prospects for the future. Today, we dive into two aspects of the game that Chris Collins' teams haven't done very well:
For the second year in a row, Northwestern A) rarely attacked the offensive boards, and B) barely forced any turnovers. Is that troubling? And is it due to the coaching staff's philosophy, or is it more about personnel?
Ben Goren: Troubling? I'm not so sure. Two at large NCAA tournament teams actually had a lower turnover forced percentage than the Wildcats did last year (NC State and Texas). I don't think you need to force turnovers to be a good defensive team. As long as you're forcing people to make tough jump shots, I don't really care if you're not getting steals. However, not forcing turnovers guarantees that you're going to be playing a slow tempo. Chris Collins came in promising an up-tempo, run and gun kind of system. In year one, playing slow could be written off as trying to make do with Carmody's players, but in year two, NU had the horses to push the tempo. If Chris Collins really does want to run, he's going to have to amp up the defensive pressure. If he's fine playing with the 13th slowest system in the country, then the defense doesn't need to force turnovers.
Offensive rebounding was a little bit surprising. Maybe it was a little foolish to expect Vic Law to almost single handedly turn Northwestern into a decent offensive rebounding team, but I'm a little guilty of setting those expectations. I think NU will be better at that next year. With Law getting bigger, Van Zegeren playing maybe 15 minutes a night, and Aaron Falzon coming in, I think just talent alone should fix that problem.
Zach Pereles: I'm with Ben. Would forcing more turnovers help the Wildcats? Sure. But I would rather the Wildcats force few turnovers and not gamble for a steal than gamble and get burnt more often than not. This team isn't really built to run simply because their players -- outside of Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey -- aren't fantastic athletes or necessarily very quick. A slower pace benefits Northwestern, so forcing a lot of turnovers isn't really necessary. I also think that as the freshmen develop physically and watch more film, they will be better at getting into passing lanes and forcing turnovers.
As far as offensive rebounding goes, the Wildcats do need to improve. Northwestern ranked 282nd in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. That's not good, especially for a team that doesn't shoot the ball particularly efficiently. For a lot of successful teams that don't shoot the ball well, they get points from offensive rebounding. I think van Zegeren will be a really good replacement for Olah on the boards. He's simply quicker and more athletic. A lot of offensive rebounding is quickly establishing good position, and van Zegeren can do that. I still think a big part of Collins' plan is not allowing transition buckets, and if you attack the offensive boards hard every possession, that opens up the transition game. A change in personnel, however, will help the Wildcats earn more second-chance points.
Henry Bushnell: Like Ben and Zach, I'm mostly concerned with the offensive rebounding, which improved slightly in year two, but was still poor. The inability to force turnovers is mostly due to coaching philosophy, and that's perfectly fine, because there's not a strong correlation between opponent turnover percentage and defensive efficiency. I also have absolutely no problem with NU playing at a slow tempo.
As for the offensive rebounding, it's pretty clear that this also has something to do with Collins' coaching. While the Wildcats' defensive rebounding percentage was above average nationally, their offensive rebounding percentage was still significantly below average. The discrepancy wasn't as startling as it was 2013/14, but it's still noteworthy. And for a team that has decent athletes on the front line, plus one huge Romanian, there's no natural reason for this. Why was Vic Law's defensive rebounding percentage 18.2 (top 350 in the country), but his offensive rebounding percentage only 5.2? You can argue that Collins wants everybody but Olah getting back to halt opponents' transition offense, but as John Gasaway points out in this tremendous analysis of teams like NU that refuse to crash the offensive boards, there's not as strong of a negative correlation between offensive rebounding and opponent scoring in transition as you might think.
And it's important not to underestimate how big of an impact offensive rebounding can have on a game. Just look at Northwestern's last two contests this season. Against Iowa, NU's effective field goal percentage was 47.6; Iowa's was 48.3. But the Hawkeyes won going away because they attempted 60 shots compared to Northwestern's 42. A big reason for that was offensive rebounding. Iowa's percentage was pretty close to its season average, but Northwestern recovered just one of its 26 missed shots. And then in the Big Ten Tournament loss to Indiana, the story was similar. Indiana got 65 shots up on the rim, while Northwestern only attempted 46. Why? Because the Hoosiers crashed the boards relentlessly and pulled down 50 percent of their misses, while the Wildcats rebounded only 18 percent of theirs. That accounted for most of the difference. If NU can improve on the offensive glass in 2015/16--and I see no reason why it can't--some of those close Big Ten losses could turn into wins.
Jason Dorow: I have a little more concern about the turnovers than the other guys. We know Collins wants to push the pace in the future, and the changing personnel should make that feasible. But that tempo isn't going to be very effective without turnovers. Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh really need to develop physically and polish their defensive game. Soon NU will be playing man-to-man again, and it will be on all of them to trigger the fastbreak, because as the saying goes, sometimes defense is the best offense.
While the lack of turnovers and offensive rebounds were both symptoms of personnel and philosophy, I lean more toward philosophy for rebounding. It was a rare occasion that you saw more than one or two Wildcats in the paint after they put a shot up. Over the last two seasons, Collins knew this team's strongest asset was its defense, and he wasn't going to let it go to waste by crashing the boards.
The personnel wasn't great for offensive rebounding either though. Vic Law and Sanjay Lumpkin would track down some offensive boards just off pure athleticism and Olah did the same using his size, but that was about it. Those three accounted for nearly half of Northwestern's offensive boards. Next year, Collins can throw in Van Zegeren and Falzon to work alongside a stronger Lumpkin and Law, and with those reinforcements, perhaps Collins will send more bodies at the offensive glass. The offensive rebounding problem should solve itself soon.