After four seasons, Chris Collins has led Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament, as you may have heard. While the run will always remain near and dear to our emotions, 2017 was also a turning point analytically in terms of Northwestern basketball’s statistical profile.
In addition to on-court success, Northwestern earned its highest spot on Ken Pomeroy’s excellent college basketball statistics website. The team ranked 38th in the country in adjusted efficiency, which puts it around Dayton, Miami (FL) and Arkansas.
Here’s a full encapsulation of Collins’ first four years:
Anyone who has watched this team develop have noticed improvements over the past four years for Collins’ teams , but it’s worth looking at stats to prove what we’ve seen on the court.
Northwestern has better players, but it also just plays a much better team defense than it did during the Carmody era. Northwestern’s defenses never cracked the top 100 in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric between 2010-2013. In Collins’ first year, the team rocketed to 23rd. After a small blip in 2014-15, Northwestern ranked 57th in adjusted defense in 2015-16 and 32nd in 2016-17. Under Collins, it appears that defensive intensity is here to stay.
One huge area of improvement for the Wildcats over the past four years has been offensive rebounding (one of the “four factors” that usually determine basketball success). The Wildcats were 348th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage in Collins’ first year. That number has steadily gone down, and Northwestern finally reached 118th in offensive rebounding percentage in 2016-17. That huge improvement in offensive rebounding never seemed possible in the Carmody system, but Northwestern is now a decent offensive rebounding team. Go figure.
That offensive rebounding improvement helped mask a marked decline in shooting for the Wildcats in 2016-17. Despite posting 1.3 more points per possession in adjusted offensive efficiency this season (good enough for 59th in the nation), Northwestern’s two-point and three-point percentage fell significantly. Thankfully, the Big Ten was the third-worst conference in two-point shooting percentage last year, and Northwestern managed to remain competitive in conference play despite the dropoff. This awful overall shooting was also a huge reason why the Big Ten was nearly unwatchable for much of last season.
The 2.8 percent drop in two-point shooting and the 1.6 percent drop in three-point shooting was made back at the line. Northwestern basketball posted its best season at the line since Pomeroy started recording data in 2002. The Wildcats were the third-best team at the line during Big Ten play.
However, the team also had the worst defensive rebounding season it’s had under Collins (in comparison to the rest of college basketball). While much of this could just be randomness, Northwestern fell to 239th in the nation from a peak of 104th last season. After posting the fifth best defensive rebounding success rate in the Big Ten last year, Northwestern fell to tenth in 2016-17. Returning to its previous decency in this stat will probably be a talking point during the offseason.
Through the past 15 years, Northwestern basketball has never played quickly. That has remained the case for Northwestern throughout Collins’ tenure. Northwestern got a tad faster in 2016-17, adding about 1.5 extra possessions per game. However, this is well within the realms of a normal standard deviation, and it’s hard to see Northwestern ever become a run-and-gun style offense.
Lastly, the respect for the basketball that Northwestern consistently displayed under Carmody has transferred into Collins’ four years. Northwestern continued to rank very highly in limiting turnovers. Only 16 percent of Northwestern’s possessions resulted in turnovers. This put Northwestern at 28th in the country, the school’s highest ranking in the metric under Collins. The team’s assist rate and assist-to-turnover ratio remains very solid.
If Northwestern can improve its shooting and continue to play elite defense (the dream of coaches worldwide), it should be set to be even better in 2017-18. As of now, most of the indicators are looking good for Northwestern, and it will be interesting to see how Collins adapts to new players and new coaches in the conference. Whatever happens will surely be born out by the numbers.