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Law’s return, Lindsey’s emergence spur faster tempo, easier points

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The Wildcats still aren’t playing up-tempo — far from it — but they are faster than they’ve ever been in the Collins era.

Legends Classic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

During the first four years of his tenure, Chris Collins has reiterated that he would like to play at a quicker pace. Whether that comes in transition or getting into the offense earlier, the goal has been to get more possessions by picking up the pace.

To put it bluntly, that has not happened in Collin’s first three years. The Wildcats ranked — out of 351 Division I teams — 338th, 341st and 340th in Kenpom’s adjusted tempo in 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Playing slowly doesn’t necessarily mean playing bad basketball. Virginia, Wisconsin, Syracuse and a bevy of other schools have been able to take the air out of the ball, make opponents play nearly 30 seconds of defense per possession and win plenty of games. But those teams are all outstanding defensive groups, something Northwestern hasn’t been under Collins.

But this year has been different. Not only does Collins have his most offensively talented and well-rounded roster in his fourth year, but he also has the tools to pick up the tempo. Led by his two top wings, a vastly-improved Scottie Lindsey and a healthy, explosive Vic Law, the Wildcats have climbed over 50 spots to 284th in adjusted tempo, per Kenpom. It’s still not fast, but it’s much, much faster than the previous Collins-led Northwestern teams have played.

“You have to attribute it to having the guys on the wings that can get out in the lanes and get some easy baskets,” Chris Collins said on Monday’s Big Ten teleconference. “I think we’re getting more in transition than we’ve got in the past couple years.”

The numbers back up what Collins is thinking. Per Hoop Math, this year’s Northwestern team is by far the best not only at getting into transition offense, but also scoring in transition, too.

Transition percentages under Collins

Year % of initial attempts Transition efficient shooting %
Year % of initial attempts Transition efficient shooting %
2013-2014 17.3 54.3
2014-2015 18.5 38.2
2015-2016 20.4 57
2016-2017 21.8 61.9

“We’re able to pass ahead to Vic and Scottie, and those guys can attack a little bit,” Collins said. “We want Bryant to push the ball when we get a rebound or get a steal and try to attack when we have numbers. It is something we’ve emphasized, but even more than that, being a little more athletic.”

Interestingly, while this year’s team is clearly more athletic at most spots on the floor — Collins added that the speed of big men Gavin Skelly and Dererk Pardon helps the cause — that doesn’t mean the Wildcats are necessarily getting easier buckets. In fact, the Wildcats shoot just 59.6 percent at the rim in transition, the worst mark of any NU team under Collins. But what makes Northwestern so lethal in transition is the transition three, something at which all three of Northwestern’s wings, Lindsey, Law and Sanjay Lumpkin, excel.

Shooting percentages in transition

Year FG % at rim FG % 2pt jumpers FG % 3 pt
Year FG % at rim FG % 2pt jumpers FG % 3 pt
2013-2014 42.9 40.4 31.9
2014-2015 66.7 40.6 40.6
2015-2016 68.3 38.9 36
2016-2017 59.6 47.4 50

So even with all the added length and athleticism, it’s the jump-shooting acumen that makes the team so efficient on the break. That 61.9 efficient shooting percentage mark is good for 65th in the nation and fifth in the Big Ten. By getting out in transition more and being more efficient in transition, Northwestern has been quite efficient overall: 40th in adjusted offensive efficiency according to Kenpom, 32 spots better than last year’s team.

Now the question is: What does the future hold? Can Northwestern continue to get transition opportunities and capitalize upon them, or will better competition limit those opportunities? Can Lindsey (46.8 percent from three), Law (50 percent), Lumpkin (44.4 percent) and even Nate Taphorn (50 percent) maintain their stroke throughout a 30-plus-game slate? Should the Wildcats try to run more to create more opportunities?

It seems as if the Wildcats will be fine if the transition game slows somewhat as competition increases — after all, it’s not as if it’s a major part of the offense, and the Wildcat half-court offense has been somewhat efficient (51.5 eFG% is 102nd in the nation). But with a healthy Law and a rejuvenated Lindsey, Northwestern has the pieces to capitalize in transition and perhaps even use that weapon more often.