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Northwestern basketball midterm exam: The results are in

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A bigger picture look at the season so far.

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

For the first time in a long time, Northwestern men’s basketball is on break. After playing seven games in 17 days, the team is in the middle of a nine-day pause between a win over DePaul and an upcoming game against Chicago State Monday. The break will provide the team a chance to really hit the practice floor for the first time in weeks; head coach Chris Collins says he wants to put in some new sets, fine-tune late-game execution, and work on the press break and the defense.

With the quasi-vacation, it makes sense to take a look at how Northwestern has fared this season, and where it’s headed. Plus, after finishing finals, exams are on the brain. Here’s a midterm evaluation of Northwestern’s 2018-2019 campaign:

What the stats say

Right now, Northwestern ranks No. 47 in KenPom. For reference, NU finished ranked No. 85 last season, and No. 38 two seasons ago when it made the NCAA Tournament.

Northwestern ranks No. 31 in defensive efficiency, which is right about where it was two years ago on the Tournament team. Before the season, NU figured to be a long, versatile defensive team, and that’s exactly what the Wildcats have been. Vic Law is still an elite perimeter defender, Dererk Pardon is a good interior defender and Anthony Gaines has shown the ability to guard some 4s, which gives Chris Collins great flexibility with his lineups.

Northwestern’s most used lineup has been A.J. Turner, Ryan Taylor, Law, Gaines and Pardon, a group that has been on the court 32.4 percent of the time this season. Ryan Taylor struggles defensively, and Turner is up-and-down on that end, so Gaines often guards bigger players to make the lineup work.

Offensively, Northwestern ranks No. 85 in efficiency, the third-highest ranking of Collins’s six seasons in charge. Without a true point guard, the Wildcats still play a half-court, slower style, but they’ve pushed the pace more than they ever have under Collins. NU ranks No. 240 in the country in adjusted tempo — the previous high came in the Tournament year when the team ranked No. 292.

That increased pace has come at a price, though: Northwestern, usually a team that doesn’t turn the ball over a whole lot, now has the highest turnover rate of the Collins era. This is an area where the lack of a true point guard hurts. The playmaking duties are spread across the team, and so are the turnover numbers. Turner, Law, Pardon and Gaines all average between 2.1 and 3.1 assists per game and between 1.6 and 2.3 turnovers per game.

As far as offensive style, it feels like Northwestern has relied heavily on threes, but that’s not true in reality. Three-pointers account for 30.2 percent of Northwestern’s points, the lowest figure of the Collins era. And, even with A.J. Turner and Ryan Taylor added to the fold (more on them later), Northwestern is shooting threes worse than it has since Collins’s first season (NU is shooting 33.2 percent from three, down from 35.4 last season).

Right now, KenPom predicts Northwestern will finish 18-13 and 8-12 in the Big Ten.

KenPom.com

Individual evaluations

The stalwarts

It makes sense to start with Vic Law, who leads the team in scoring by a considerable margin. Despite being a senior and in his fifth season with the program, Law has taken a significant leap from last season, upping his scoring, efficiency and playmaking while still taking difficult defensive assignments game after game.

Vic Law Career Stats

Year Points per game Assists per game Turnovers per game Rebounds per game FG% 3P%
Year Points per game Assists per game Turnovers per game Rebounds per game FG% 3P%
2018-2019 18.5 2.5 1.9 6.7 0.455 0.418
2017-2018 12 2.2 1.7 5.8 0.418 0.383
2016-2017 (post-redshirt) 12.3 1.8 1.6 5.8 0.403 0.399
2014-2015 7 1.3 1.5 4.8 0.387 0.355

Yes, Northwestern’s schedule will ramp up in difficulty once Big Ten play rolls around for real. Still, Law looks like a new player after offseason surgery to repair a lung defect, and he’s clearly added to his offensive game in the mid-range.

Dererk Pardon is also posting the best season of his career as a senior, upping his production across the board as well. When Pardon gets the ball, good things generally happen for the NU offense. For as good as he’s been this season, he’s fourth on the team in percentage of shots taken while on the floor. NU would be wise to get him the ball more.

Teams will likely double Pardon more going forward, and the Wildcats will need to adapt. Against DePaul, Pardon saw double-teams on most catches, and it flustered NU, particularly in the first half. Pardon is certainly a capable passer, but he’s just not used to seeing double-teams all the time. Going forward, Pardon’s decision-making out of the post will be important to monitor.

The transfers

For Northwestern’s two transfers, it’s been a mixed bag, some of which is to be expected.

Ryan Taylor, who came to Northwestern as a highly-touted scorer and tough-shot-maker, has flashed the ability that made him so sought-after on the grad transfer market. His shot looks effortless and pure, and he’s shown he can score in bunches. The problem, though, has been consistency and assertiveness.

For context, Taylor has experienced the basketball equivalent of a culture-shock. Last season at Evansville, Taylor had a usage rate of 31.2 and took 40.7 percent of his team’s shots when he’s on the floor, which was the most in Division I. This season, Taylor has a usage rate of 19.6 and has taken 26 percent of Northwestern’s shots when he’s on the floor.

In a reduced role, in comparison to the gargantuan one he played last season, Taylor has struggled to get in a rhythm at times. Taylor has scored 20 points in three of 10 games this season, and has hit four or more threes in each of those games, but he’s also scored in single-digits five times. Taylor has admitted he’s had a tough time getting adjusted at Northwestern, which makes sense. Taylor will need to be able to string together good scoring stretches to stay on the floor because he offers little in terms of defense and playmaking.

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

A.J. Turner is also breaking in a new role at Northwestern, and he’s gone through some growing pains as well.

Playing point guard for the first time in his career, Turner has an increased role from his time at Boston College. Turner leads the team in assists, though he’s struggled to shoot the ball from deep — except his last game, where he exploded for 24 points and six made threes in a heroic performance against DePaul.

Turner doesn’t need to play like he did against DePaul every game for Northwestern to be a Tournament team, but he will have to continue to shoot the ball well to keep the offense on track. With Anthony Gaines providing little in terms of shooting, Turner has to continue shooting well to keep the floor spaced. He’s not a perfect fit at point guard, and the jury is still out on Northwestern’s late-game execution with no point guard, but Turner has filled in pretty well so far.

Taylor and Turner are both talented, but streaky players. If at least one of them is hitting shots, Northwestern will have a chance in games. If both can hit shots going forward, then Northwestern becomes a dangerous team in the Big Ten.

Anthony Gaines

As the lone recruit in his class, it’s fitting that Gaines is in his own category here. With Gaines, it’s pretty simple: he’s a valuable defender, but provides near-nothing offensively. There have been some bright spots, like his seven assists against DePaul or 7-of-8 free throw shooting against Utah, but his shooting hasn’t improved in his second season in Evanston, and his handle is still shaky. His versatility and strength are important for Northwestern defensively, though, which keeps him on the floor. He’s still an elite athlete with great physical tools, but the offense has not come around yet.

Barret Benson

Benson has looked decent in his time on the court, but there just aren’t a ton of minutes available for him with Pardon locked in at center. Chris Collins has said he can’t feasibly play two centers together on most nights, which means Benson gets limited time. There will be times when Pardon gets in foul trouble and Benson gets thrust into action, but that hasn’t happened much yet.

Jordan Ash

Ash has dealt with injury this season, which caused him to miss the DePaul game. He hasn’t improved in his senior season; if anything he’s regressed. This season, albeit in limited minutes, Ash is mostly there to take care of the ball and play decent defense. When he’s in the game with Gaines, the offense is just brutal to watch.

Aaron Falzon

Still out with an ankle injury, though he should be back relatively soon.

The freshmen

At this point, Northwestern’s freshmen appear able, but not truly ready to contribute consistently, which is typical for freshmen.

Miller Kopp starts, but he only plays 13 minutes per game. He’s shot the ball well, but he looks lost at times defensively, and can get out of control with the ball in his hands. He appears to be growing increasingly comfortable, and his poise in the second half against Indiana in a raucous Assembly Hall, after really struggling in the first half, is encouraging.

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

Pete Nance, who entered the season with tons of hype, was never going to be physically ready to be a force this season. His length is evident, which helps him tread water defensively, and his three-point shot is clearly there. Which is to say, he’s talented, and that talent shines through at times. He doesn’t look comfortable with the ball in hands yet, and that keeps his minutes down. When he gets the ball with a clear read, he’s fine. Where he runs into trouble is when he has to read the defense and make a decision on the wing. Because he isn’t ready to live in the post, and because he isn’t a playmaker at this stage in his career, most of his shots come on spot-up threes.

Kopp and Nance should see increasing roles as the season unfolds. They came in with immense hype, and for good reason. They’re freshmen, though, so they need more experience in order to truly get up to speed to the college game.

Ryan Greer hasn’t seen many opportunities, and that probably won’t change a ton as the season progresses. He’s looked pretty good in spurts, but he isn’t nearly at the requisite offensive level right now to consistently play.

Season outlook

All of Northwestern’s goals are still ahead of it. The start to the season has been neutral in the sense that the Wildcats have no terrible losses (though Fresno State isn’t great) and no great wins.

Still, Northwestern has won most of the games it was supposed to win, which bodes well. Losses to Indiana and Michigan in close fashion are tough because those could’ve been huge resume-building wins to start conference play, and NU blew both. The Big Ten will give NU a lot of chances to pick up good wins, but those two hurt.

The performances in those two games are good signs, however. Hanging tough with a top 25 Indiana team on the road is nothing to scoff at, and Northwestern played a top-5 Michigan closer than anybody else (there’s just something about how NU plays Michigan). Going forward, Northwestern has to pick up some upper-level wins to get into the Tournament conversation, and Oklahoma next week would be a good start.

Georgia Tech, Utah and DePaul are nice wins, but they won’t move the needle a ton come Selection Sunday. Had the Wildcats lost those games, it would’ve bumped them down a fair amount, so it’s important they won those, but they still aren’t earth-shifting wins in the grand scheme of things.

After the non-conference slate finishes in a few weeks, you’d have to think Northwestern needs to win at least 10 or 11 of its remaining 18 Big Ten games to position itself for March Madness (probably on the upper end of that).

With the way the season has started, that looks possible and squarely within reach. It just depends which Northwestern team shows up in the next few months.