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Sharing is caring: the secret behind Northwestern’s offensive surge

An uptick in ball movement has returned the Wildcats to their winning ways.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at DePaul Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

After an inauspicious start, Northwestern’s once-disjointed offense is humming and only gaining steam. During their four-game winning streak, the Wildcats have averaged 81.8 points per game on 45.1 percent shooting from the field and 41.4 percent from beyond the arc. While the team’s competition has been weaker of late, Northwestern’s ball movement has been the reason behind the Wildcats’ improved offense in the past month.

Through its first five games, the team assisted on 52.4 percent of its made field goals, down from the 59.3 percent last year’s squad posted. Instead of beating defenses with crisp, smart passing, Northwestern settled into isolation plays, resulting in late-shot clock attempts and heaps of turnovers.

Against the likes of Loyola (Md.) and Saint Peter’s, teams that the Wildcats were expected to trounce, Northwestern struggled to pull away due to a lack of ball movement. It killed the team against Creighton and Texas Tech. While the Wildcats dropped 88 points on the Bluejays, Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law were responsible for 54 of them (as well as 10 assists); it wasn’t a strong offensive performance for the team as a whole. We don’t have to rehash what happened against the Red Raiders.

Following the loss to Texas Tech, Northwestern had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.94, giving up an average of 17.4 points off turnovers per game. Not only was the Wildcats’ dearth of passing hurting their offense, but also their defense, as the team was gifting opponents free possessions with lazy and errant passes.

After some soul-searching, which involved the removal of player banners and replacing team gear with nondescript apparel, the team got back to what made its offense go: ball movement. Over the past eight games, Northwestern assisted on 63.8 percent of its made field goals with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.53 and gave up just 8.3 points off turnovers per game.

“We’re a function of our parts,” head coach Chris Collins said after the win over Sacred Heart. “We have nice talent, but when those guys play together, they’re all a lot better. When we all try to do it on our own, then we’re not as good.”

While McIntosh is the Wildcats’ lead distributor, several of his teammates have contributed, too. Seven players are averaging at least one assist per game. Given Northwestern’s lack of superstar talent, spreading the wealth on offense is the team’s bread and butter.

“Our offense is a lot better when we’re moving the ball around,” Law said after the victory over Valparaiso. “We’re not the type of team that’s just gonna break you down.”

In the past week and a half, the Wildcats have two games with at least 20 assists this year, something the team achieved seven times last season. Northwestern’s increased ball movement has led to efficient scoring, but it’s also strengthened the team’s chemistry.

“It just makes everyone feel involved,” McIntosh said after the game against Lewis.

As the Wildcats head to Norman, Okla., for the team’s biggest game of the season, they are now assisting on 59.5 percent of their made field goals, a higher percentage than last year’s team. Sure, this season’s crew has only played 13 games, but it’s a sign that Northwestern is playing like its old, egalitarian self.