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Northwestern basketball notebook: Urgency instead of desperation, shot selection, and more

Three takeaways from NU’s media availability on Wednesday afternoon.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Northwestern Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Collins and the Northwestern men’s basketball team addressed the media Wednesday afternoon in Evanston. Here are a couple storylines that stuck out ahead of Thursday’s matchup with Wisconsin in Madison.

A need for a “senior urgency”

Despite a disappointing season, Northwestern is still a veteran team. A more inexperienced squad might have melted down when things went wrong, but Collins is happy with the team’s attitude.

“I don’t see any quit in our guys, I don’t see any last-chance desperation, but I think the urgency is definitely there,” Collins said.

Noting the upperclassmen in the rotation, Collins referred to the team’s demeanor as a “senior urgency.”

“For a number of these guys, this is their last go-round so we need our whole team to play with the same urgency that I know Bryant, Gavin, and Scottie are gonna have here this last month,” Collins said.

Seven Big Ten teams have between three and five wins, indicating the opportunity for a team to rise from the middle tier of the conference. With three of the next four games on the road, the schedule isn’t doing Northwestern any favors. For now, all eyes are on Thursday’s opponent, Wisconsin, who have lost six of seven.

“Everything that has happened this year, you can’t go back and change it, as bad as we want to,” Bryant McIntosh said. “We put ourselves in this position and now we just have to focus one game at a time in order to do what we want to do.”

Shot selection must improve

Monday night represented Northwestern’s third game this season in which it scored fewer than 50 points. The Wildcats have slipped to 11th in the conference in adjusted offensive efficiency.

McIntosh and Collins agreed that the Wildcats took good shots for the most part, but just couldn’t knock them down. Part of the problem has been been cold three-point shooting; after Northwestern went 4-of-16 from deep on Monday, the Wildcats are third in the Big Ten in three-pointers attempted but tenth in the conference in three-point percentage at 32.3.

Dylan Burkhardt at The Athletic also noted that the Cats are awfully reliant on mid-range jumpers:

According to Krossover play logging data, the Wildcats lead the conference in percentage of shot attempts from the midrange, with 28.5 percent of all field goal attempts originating away from the basket but inside the 3-point line. Both Bryant McIntosh (31 percent) and Scottie Lindsey (34 percent) have struggled to make these midrange jumpers this season.

Part of McIntosh’s struggles may have to do with the lingering effects of his December knee injury.

“Personally, I’ve been nicked and banged up more than I ever have in my career,” McIntosh said when asked what has been disappointing for him about this season. “I’ve had a pretty healthy career to this point and just having these little nicks and bruises that are kind of sidelining me or not allowing me to practice really bothers me. I’m a rhythm guy.”

The free throw problem

Issues with shot selection go hand-in-hand with another offensive bugaboo — a lack of free throw attempts. Settling for jumpers means the Wildcats have been attacking the paint and getting to the line less often.

On Monday night, Northwestern took 47 shots from the field and managed just ten free throws for a free throw rate of 21.2 percent. Ten games into conference play, the Wildcats are dead last in the conference in free throw rate, getting to the line less than 24 times per 100 field goals attempted.

In comparison, Northwestern’s conference opponents have shot 36.3 throws per 100 FGA. It didn’t hurt Northwestern on Monday night, but charity stripe discrepancies hurt Northwestern in losses to Purdue and Penn State.

Here’s a chart showing the year-over-year change in free throw rate in conference play among all of Northwestern’s 2016-17 returnees. It’s not pretty.

Big Ten Free Throw Rate

Player % change in FT rate
Player % change in FT rate
Gavin Skelly -20.8
Scottie Lindsey -11.6
Bryant McIntosh -8.7
Isiah Brown -7
Vic Law -6.2
Dererk Pardon 0.7
Jordan Ash 5.9
Barrett Benson 7.1

Okay, okay, before you get too excited about the development of Jordan Ash and Barrett Benson, consider that they have attempted five free throws combined in conference play and missed them all.

Digging a bit deeper into the data doesn’t make the picture any prettier. Gavin Skelly has gotten much more efficient from downtown, but the big man has only shot eight free throws in conference play.

And Northwestern’s primary ball-handlers and playmakers, Lindsey and McIntosh, need to do a better job of getting to the line. The duo has only shot 35 free throws in ten conference games.

“It’s something that we’re continuously working on,” Collins said. “Trying to be physical, getting to the basket, being smart enough to create contact and find ways to get to the free throw line, especially when you are struggling with your shot from outside.”

Collins also noted that Lindsey and McIntosh are exceptional free throw shooters. While McIntosh’s percentage has dipped to 64.7 percent in conference play, he and Lindsey have combined to shoot 83.3 percent from the line this season. Northwestern as a team is still leading the conference in free throw percentage (75.3), but just isn’t getting there enough to utilize that advantage. Obviously, it’s easier said than done to get to the basket and draw fouls, but right now Northwestern is leaving three or four points off the board.