Three games into their 2019 non-conference campaign, Chris Collins’ team has already provided us with a microcosm of what we can likely expect offensively from this inexperienced roster.
The team showed a remarkable ability to bounce back from a historic loss against recently-promoted-to-Division 1 Merrimack, somehow defeating NCAA Tournament contender Providence, but then reminded us old habits die hard after dropping a game at home to Radford (who, people forget, have won a game in the NCAA tournament more recently than the Wildcats have).
As is often the case with young squads, the Wildcats are likely going to be prone to the wildly inconsistent play they’ve shown to start the year all season long. For now, all we can do is attempt to make sense of what we’ve seen so far, specifically offensively, and try and glean some insights moving forward about what the team needs to do to level things out a bit.
Areas of Improvement
Before diving into the film, let’s take a look at a couple of (unflattering) numbers:
Northwestern averages .814 points per possession (PPP) overall, placing them in the 23rd percentile nationally (stats courtesy of Synergy Sports Tech, an analytics site that is partnered with most NBA and NCAA teams).
Northwestern averages .474 points per possession when the ball handler in a pick and roll ends up shooting, placing them in the 8th percentile.
Northwestern’s half court offense averages .808 points per possession, placing them in the 28th percentile.
I don't mean to beat a dead horse with these stats; rather, I use them to point out particularly weak areas of the team’s offense. To put it quite simply, the ‘Cats aren’t scoring very much, especially when they get stuck in the half court, and especially when they rely too heavily on the pick and roll to create looks for ball-dominant players.
Let’s take a look at the film:
On this play, Boo Buie gets caught on the sideline after Radford gives a hard denial against the intended dribble hand off with Pat Spencer, leaving him without a dribble and pinned to the sideline 27 feet from the basket. He gets bailed out by A.J. Turner, who calls out a new set that actually gets him a wide open look (seen below), but Jared Jones fails to make the necessary (if difficult) pass.
Yes, that white blur is Turner gunning towards a wide open key. Alas, Jones gets the ball back to Buie, who goes into an isolation where the Radford defender does an excellent job keeping him on his left and out of the middle of the floor. With ten seconds left in the shot clock, Buie doesn’t swing it back to Spencer at the top of the key to get something going, and instead he plows into a crowded lane and gets called for the charge.
The issue here isn’t so much the isolation, as these tend to arise in similar late-shot clock situations even with a better offensive structure. It’s that any off ball movement that could potentially create a passing lane for Buie to kick to is non-existent.
I don’t want to try and read the minds of the players on the court here, but the stagnation of Robbie Beran, Spencer, and Turner here lead Buie with no option but the one he took, as opposed to a potential interchange between the guards creating a kick out lane for an open 3, or possibly even a defender getting lost in rotation leading to an open dump pass to Beran.
The lack of off-ball movement displayed in the Northwestern half-court offense is often the cause of broken possessions, and we’ll take a look at another one here.
To be totally honest, I’m not sure what the created looks in this play are supposed to be, as it starts with a simple rub from Ryan Young that seems like more of a decoy screen, and Pete Nance follows him and whiffs a bit on his screen before trying to flip it and set a baseline one, leaving Spencer to dribble aimlessly into the corner.
Anthony Gaines wisely clears out, but his defender stays, leaving Spencer in a double to force up a tough shot in the lane. Turner actually does make himself available at the top, but at this point it’s much too late. The play has put Spencer, a guard with no collegiate basketball experience, in a baseline double team, a less-than-ideal situation for a player at any experience level.
I’m hesitant to criticize the play design too heavily because Nance’s missed screen appears to have killed it, but even still, putting a first-year point guard in a set that would seemingly require him to rise and fire a pass over the entire defense to the corner or plant his foot in the ground and throw a reverse pass to Turner when he may not be expecting him to be there is ambitious.
While convoluted play design has led to some of the squad’s scoring struggles, an apparent emphasis on milking the clock has been equally detrimental. We’ve seen this a bit in the previous clips, particularly the Buie isolation, but it comes up again below, as a baseline out of bounds play creates a potential open three that goes to waste.
Pete Nance, caught on the baseline, throws an awesome kick-out pass to Gaines here, but the junior, not known for his shooting, understandably passes on the look. He pump fakes but then backs the ball out, unnecessarily allowing the scrambling defense to find their men with ease.
As you can see in the freeze frame above, Providence is lost as they try to relocate to Miller Kopp at the top of the key and simultaneously cover Beran flashing to the high post. If Gaines hits Kopp on a quick swing, he gives the best shooter on the team the ball somewhat alone behind the arc, leaving him to either shoot or pass to Turner, whose man is lost trying to stunt on Beran. Instead, both Providence players recover and the team resorts to a Nance post up, which ends in a turnover.
While the offense is often plagued by a P&R-saturated offense along with player and ball stagnation, there are times where they look like a totally different team. This leads me to believe the team’s problems aren’t necessarily talent-based, but rather come as a result of their current overall offensive approach.
While Northwestern ranks worse in transition than they do in the half court (their points per possession on transition chances is in the 15th percentile), this seems to mostly be a product of how sporadically they actually attack in those settings.
Pat Spencer and Boo Buie have shown they have above average speed and quickness with the ball in their hands. The wing group of Gaines, Kopp, Nance, Beran, and Turner are all fluid athletes and most are capable shooters. Even big men Jared Jones and Ryan Young have shown their ability and willingness to rim-run and create lanes for everyone around them. If you (understandably) don’t believe me, just take a look at the play below:
This is probably my favorite Northwestern offensive possession of the season thus far. After Radford drills a three, Nance gets the ball out of the net relatively quickly and inbounds to Buie, who’s circling away from the pass about 17 feet from the baseline. Meanwhile, Kopp, Spencer, and Young have all already filled their lanes, with the first two filling out the corners as the two and the three in this lineup and Young in the paint early.
Buie throws an excellent kick-ahead pass to Spencer, who attacks the key with his man trailing. With Young already in there, Kopp’s man has to help the helper, and Spencer elevates and kicks to Kopp for a wide-open corner three, which he drills.
Here, the ‘Cats don’t create a transition possession out of a dead ball like the last clip, but their fluidity on offense is equally beautiful to watch. Gaines comes off a pin-down screen, and quickly interchanges with Spencer, who immediately moves into a ball screen with Young. Notice how Spencer doesn’t force anything here, he just glides off of it, allowing Young’s roll to collapse the defense rather than any dribble he makes.
As Nance’s man checks the rolling Young, he floats up to the top of the key, and Spencer hits him in rhythm to bury a three.
These two plays illustrate that when Collins allows his players to operate more fluidly rather than in set plays that eat up 10 seconds without creating any looks, his players are more than equipped to create offense. As mentioned earlier, a lot of Northwestern’s offensive woes come after they try to rigidly run a play that the opponent appropriately covers, possibly because they’ve seen it in their scout, and are left to improvise.
I’m not here to propose Northwestern run a rudimentary motion or flex offense, but I would like to see them run some more quick hitting actions as seen above, with an offensive system that considers player freedom a bit more than their current one does. However, to Collins’ credit, he and his staff do gameplan well in some cases, using opponent tendencies to create opportunities.
So far, the best example of this has been how Northwestern big men played in ball screen actions against Providence. Going in, it seems Collins was aware Providence hedged especially high on ball screens going towards the middle of the court, a tactic employed by a lot of teams to keep out downhill drives into the paint.
However, Ed Cooley’s team can tend to cheat this a bit, as seen in this clip. To combat this, Young slips incredibly early in the screen, leading me to believe this was a point of emphasis going into the game, and gets a wide open 15-footer out of it. It will be notable to watch how Collins plans for other teams’ defensive tendencies this year, especially for when they go zone.
The Wildcats have struggled a bit this year against zone (think back to Providence’s second half run), in part due to their lack of consistent three-point shooting. However, Collins does have three big men at his disposal that have shown thus far that they are capable passers (Young, Beran and Nance), so we’ll see how the ‘Cats attack soft areas of looser zones like the one Providence ran in future games.
Despite this small sample size, we can begin to see through the team’s last two games that this Northwestern squad has a lot of potential on both ends of the spectrum. When active and engaged on offense, running through open-ended sets deliberately, the ‘Cats have the talent to be dangerous to most teams they play this year.
While there will certainly be contests where the talent gap could prove too much to overcome, most on their schedule don’t fall into this category. The way Collins prepares his team against challenging but beatable Big Ten opponents will be important moving forward, as his decision to slow the offense down or allow them to move with limited restrictions can at times single-handedly determine the outcome of games. To that end, I will be curious to see if any kind of adjustments are made on the fly when things begin to fester, like they did in the first half against Radford.
Overall, it seems as though people have forgotten that this Northwestern team doesn’t actually have a significant talent deficit compared to Chris Collins’ past groups, despite their dismal start. While inexperience is a large hurdle to overcome, this roster sports the program’s three best recruits in its history, and how they grow as Collins’ system evolves around them will be crucial to the team’s success this year and in the near future.