Right now, Northwestern is the most disappointing college basketball team in the country. This is no longer an early season slump. We are 17 games into the season and this is the reality of the situation.
Northwestern opened the season ranked at No. 18 in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason rankings (No. 19 in the preseason AP Poll). This ranking seemed to make sense. Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law, Dererk Pardon and Scottie Lindsey were all coming back. Chris Collins had an extension and was the coach of the future. The hype was unparalleled in the history of this program. It wasn’t bad reasoning. Everything made sense.
As of 8 p.m. CST on January 7, 2018, Northwestern ranks 71st on the KenPom leaderboard. That’s a 53-spot drop. Northwestern has gone from a potential Elite 8 contender to barely scraping the NIT, if that. This is a full-fledged collapse, bordering on an unmitigated disaster given how the rest of conference plays goes. At this point, it would be nice if Northwestern (10-7, 1-3 B1G) can finish over .500 in the Big Ten.
Sure, USC, UCLA and Louisville, all fellow preseason top 25 teams, have been bad. However, those teams don’t feel in complete disarray on both sides of the ball. USC has a decent win over Middle Tennessee (update: the Trojans just lost on a buzzer-beater to Stanford, so it’s a tad closer). UCLA beat Kentucky. Louisville’s mediocre season comes the closest, but the Cardinals also have their own massive internal problems that act as a some excuse. They also just took Clemson to overtime. Northwestern’s fall in the rankings eclipses them all.
Northwestern, as far as we know, has no FBI investigation or a Pitino to deal with. The Wildcats haven’t even been that unlucky. They played the 153rd-hardest non-conference schedule in the country. Coming off a disappointing failure to win any games against major conference opponents (unless you count DePaul), they then got blown off the court twice in the last week against teams that finished 12th and 13th in the conference standings in 2016-17. Sure, NU was without McIntosh against Nebraska and Penn State is much improved, but this team has too much talent to be getting blown out in those games. Combined with the Texas Tech and Oklahoma losses, that’s four double-digit losses before January 10th. It’s just awful basketball. This stretch harkens back to the 2015 and 2016 Collins squads, a floor so low that we couldn’t even consider it a possibility.
The major regression has been Northwestern’s defense, which has traditionally been the main strength of Chris Collins-coached teams. Last year, Northwestern ranked 32nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. Even if you don’t look at the stats, the defense just looked much better and more organized last season. Northwestern has already fallen to 100th in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2017-18. Giving up 1.11 points per possession to Penn State will do that to you. In fact, that number might be kind. Who knows where Northwestern would be if it had faced slightly better competition than Chicago State and Sacred Heart.
So, what’s wrong with the defense?
1. Sanjay Lumpkin is gone.
Yes, Northwestern definitely misses Sanjay Lumpkin, its erstwhile “glue guy” who was actually one of the team’s best players last season. However, Sanjay Lumpkin wasn’t Draymond Green. He was a very good defensive player and communicator, but losing one solid perimeter defender with low block and steal percentages should not be enough to completely tank a team’s defense. This has nothing to do with defense, but it’s worth noting that Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn were the team’s two most efficient offensive players by all of KenPom’s measures. Taphorn shot 47 percent from three and his floor-spacing ability has been sorely missed on that end.
2. Their opponents are just making shots.
This is definitely part of the issue. Opposing teams are shooting 37.8 percent from three against Northwestern (thank you, Trae Young and Oklahoma). From the perspective of NU’s defense, that’s 291st in the nation, and while Northwestern is definitely dragged down by Oklahoma going 17-for-26, the team is definitely doing something wrong to be 291st. To be fair, three-point percentage is a stat mostly controlled by the offense. That doesn’t excuse Northwestern’s opponents shooting 4.5 percent better from three than last year. That stat alone is enough to completely sink a defense.
While watching these games, it’s pretty clear that opposing teams are taking advantage of Northwestern’s lax three-point defense. Young, DePaul’s Max Strus and Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans have all lit up Northwestern from beyond the arc. Even Brown was able to hang in there with some strong three-point shooting. Teams aren’t exactly shooting more threes (it’s the same rate as last year, basically), but more threes are going in the basket. That speaks to a similar defensive philosophy but a lack of execution and communication.
3. Everything looks bad.
Let’s take a look at the second half highlights against Nebraska (watch from the 0:20 mark):
This is with McIntosh out, but it’s a perfect microcosm of the Wildcats’ issues. First, Northwestern allows a relatively easy transition basket. Then, Watson hits a three-pointer and gets a foul for a four-point play. Then, Scottie Lindsey gets completely outworked on a cut to the basket for an easy two.
In the Penn State highlights, you don’t even have to cut out all the Northwestern offensive highlights. There weren’t any. It’s just good offense cutting through a paper-thin defensive effort from Northwestern.
Everyone looks completely discombobulated. There’s no one play in that highlight reel that you can say is horrible, but put together it makes for a tough watch. Scottie Lindsey is back to being a complete enigma on defense. At times, Northwestern was able to run out three really good on-ball defenders (Law, Lindsey and Lumpkin) with a rangy center and an average defensive point guard in Bryant McIntosh. With Lindsey totally disengaged at times, Northwestern has one consistent on-ball defender who constantly gets in foul trouble. The players aren’t talking. They aren’t making hustle plays. They are getting beaten consistently.
4. THEY CAN’T STOP FOULING.
While referees have been predictably bad, Northwestern has a serious issue with fouling. This is the bottom 20 of the Big Ten in fouls called per 40 minutes:
That’s not just poor officiating, there is something going haywire with the defensive approach here. The three worst teams in free throw rate allowed through four conference games (not a terribly small sample by college basketball standards) are Northwestern, Rutgers, and Illinois. Northwestern’s opponents are constantly in the bonus and double bonus.
Against teams in the KenPom top 150, Northwestern has cumulatively been called for 48 more personal fouls than their opponents. The Wildcats cannot seem to play defense without fouling, and they aren’t playing good defense anyway. Collins’ teams have always been big on fouling and packing the paint, but Northwestern has fallen from 200th in 2017 to 293rd in 2018 in its ratio of attempted free throws to attempted field goals. That’s awful and unsustainable for a team that is also allowing more three pointers.
While it’s hard to bury a team with so much latent talent, there is almost no coming back from this. Northwestern must go 9-5 or better in conference over its next 14 games to just get back to a 10-8 conference record, which, when looked at next to NU’s awful non-con performance, wouldn’t be enough to even sniff the NCAA Tournament in a down Big Ten. Supposedly “winnable” games against Penn State and Nebraska are already in the bank as L’s.
Northwestern has a brutal stretch of games coming up, the real teeth of this year’s conference schedule. Three of the next four are “home” in Rosemont, but those games are against Ohio State (who just beat the No. 1 team in the country), Penn State (who just beat Northwestern by 15) and Minnesota (okay, the Gophers might be pretty bad now). The road game is at Assembly Hall on a weekend, a place where Northwestern has not won since 2014. Then Northwestern goes on a three-game road trip to Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin before returning to Rosemont for another game against the Wolverines. Then they go on the road to face Maryland.
Northwestern has to win six or seven of these games to redeem this season. KenPom only gives them more than a 50 percent chance in one game (home vs. Minnesota). And based on the last two games, this could get ugly really fast. At present, after Friday’s 15-point loss at Penn State, you have to wonder how this team is even going to go 7-7 over its next 14, let alone 9-5 or better. Although Northwestern has only lost twice at “home,” Allstate Arena appears to be a neutral site at best, and nearly a road atmosphere at its worst.
Even then, unless Northwestern manages to beat Michigan State and Michigan twice, the Wildcats won’t have an NCAA Tournament résumé even with a half-decent Big Ten Tournament run. We’ve seen this movie happen before.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the 2015-16 Northwestern women’s basketball team, another Northwestern team that looked set to compete the year after an NCAA Tournament appearance with four of the best talents in program history. Things were shaky in non-conference play, but the team entered Big Ten play with a reasonable shot to have a successful season. That team finished 12th in the conference with a future top-five WNBA pick, an ace three-point shooter and volume scorer, one of the five best defensive point guards in Big Ten history, and another solid guard in Christen Inman.
That team was in a better state than this team now, and it still went catastrophically wrong. Northwestern women’s basketball actually held on to a top 25 ranking through December in 2015-16. They lost 14 conference games. At some point, these terrible Big Ten losses start to snowball, especially with zero homecourt advantage and no end in sight.
There was a silver lining. That team played really well in the Big Ten Tournament and lost in the semifinals. It made the WNIT. It finished with a winning record. But the gains that the program had graced in 2014-15 were completely erased. After another disappointing 2016-17, the team is now under .500 and rebuilding for the future.
I’m not saying Northwestern men’s basketball is headed to the same fate. However, this season was supposed to cement the program as a perennial force. If Northwestern goes 4-14 or 5-13 in conference with McIntosh, Lindsey and Skelly, that’s a complete disaster. The program’s momentum won’t necessarily be gone, but it’ll be a huge, huge step back. Next year's recruiting class is certainly a good one, but it'll have major expectations that come with it.
And after looking at this team’s defense, I don’t know if it can win eight conference games. I don’t know if it can win six, even with a weak Big Ten. This could get very bad, very quickly. Northwestern has to beat a flagging (and dislikable) Minnesota team on Wednesday, for its own sake. If not, things are going to get really ugly.