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Why does KenPom like Northwestern so much?

A statistical breakdown of the Wildcats’ offense and defense.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

By every major metric, Northwestern enters this season as a top-20 team.

The Wildcats are 19th in the initial AP Poll and 20th in the USA Today Coaches poll. With the top five scorers from last year’s NCAA Tournament team and some new pieces being added to the mix, those voting-based rankings make sense.

But for an advanced statistical look at the hype surrounding Northwestern, I’m more focused on a different ranking. Despite peaking at 30 last season, Northwestern is 18th in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason 2017-18 college basketball ratings system.

We’re going to take a look at how KenPom evaluated the Wildcats last year, what the team can improve on and why Northwestern is so highly ranked heading into this season.

All statistics are courtesy of kenpom.com

Last season, Northwestern ranked 59th in adjusted offensive efficiency despite ranking 206th in effective field goal percentage. If the Wildcats were such a below-average shooting team, why did they rank so highly as an offense?

There are two reasons. First, Northwestern shot incredibly well from the foul line. The team ranked 46th in the country in free throw percentage. While the Wildcats ranked 296th in free throw attempt rate, they knocked down their free throws when they got to the charity stripe. Second, the team rarely turned the ball over, ranking 28th in turnover percentage. Taking care of the ball results in more opportunities to score, and Northwestern was one of the best in the nation in ball security. Some of that can be attributed to senior Bryant McIntosh having the ball in his hands most of the time, but the entire roster deserves credit for avoiding turnovers.

By hitting their free throws and taking care of the ball, the Wildcats overcame their pedestrian percentages from the field and were graded as one of the best offenses in the country. KenPom projects Northwestern to rank 19th in adjusted offensive efficiency this season, a huge leap for a team that is returning nearly all of its offensive firepower.

In order for the Wildcats to become a scoring juggernaut, they must improve their three-point shooting as well as their three-point rate. Last year, the team shot a mediocre 34.2 percent from deep, ranking 204th. They also took 35.6 percent of their shot attempts from the outside, which ranked 195th. If head coach Chris Collins can tweak his team’s shooting portfolio and encourage more shots from downtown, Northwestern may be able to reach KenPom’s lofty expectations.

After experimenting with a zone defense for a couple seasons, Collins switched to a man-to-man scheme, utilizing the length and size of his personnel. As a result, Northwestern ranked 32nd in the adjusted defensive efficiency. The team’s defensive effective field goal percentage ranked 21st and opponent average possession length ranked 338th. In other words, the Wildcats made opponents work harder and longer to get shots, many of which resulted in misses.

According to hoop-math.com, 31.5 percent of Northwestern’s opponents’ shot attempts were two-point jump shots; opponents shot a dismal 32.3 percent on such shots. The length of senior Scottie Lindsey, redshirt junior Vic Law and Sanjay Lumpkin disrupted opponents’ offenses, forcing them inside the three-point line but outside the paint. Lumpkin’s absence could be felt in the distribution of opponents’ shot attempts this season; with him gone, it’ll be up to redshirt sophomore Aaron Falzon, redshirt freshman Rapolas Ivanauskas and senior Gavin Skelly to force opponents into taking inefficient shots.

KenPom projects Northwestern to rank 22nd in adjusted defensive efficiency this year, a small but not insignificant jump from last year’s squad. As mentioned above, Lumpkin is a huge loss defensively. His versatility will be missed.

Despite that, there are a few areas where the Wildcats can improve and see their defense take another step. One of the team’s weaknesses last season was cleaning the glass, ranking 239th in opponent offensive rebounding percentage. Northwestern was able to get stops, but struggled to keep opponents off the offensive boards. Junior Dererk Pardon has posted gaudy rebounding numbers, but he needs to do a better job of finishing defensive possessions with the rebound. The Wildcats also did a poor job of keeping teams off of the foul line, ranking 200th in free throw rate. Northwestern didn’t really suffer for it, as opponents shot an abysmal 66.9 percent from the line, but the Wildcats need to stop fouling so much. The team’s free throw defense ranked 20th last season; for a statistic that random, Northwestern could fall in the bottom-20 this year. Keeping teams off the foul line could prevent such a thing from happening.

Is Northwestern going to be a top-20 team in the country this year? From a statistical standpoint, it would appear that Northwestern needs to improve in several areas before it can truly become one of the elite programs in the country. Let’s see if the Wildcats can make it happen.