“Sixty-two points is not going to be enough.”
Those were some of the first words from Chris Collins following his team’s 75-62 loss at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes, and they could not be more true.
A lot of the focus from last night’s game will be on the ‘Cats’ inability to stop Luka Garza, who dominated with 27 points and an ungodly 81.1 true shooting percentage.
Still, Northwestern managed to keep the Hawkeyes under the 79.6 points per game average they held coming into Welsh-Ryan Arena, even despite the fact that Iowa shot an uncharacteristic 45.5% from three. Defense certainly isn’t the issue for Northwestern right now.
It was expected that Garza, one of the best players in the Big Ten and almost certainly the strongest, would have his way with weaker freshman and sophomores in the post. Unfortunately, it’s also expected at this point that the NU offense is going to be subpar facing Big Ten opponents.
They are dead last in the conference in points per game, hovering right below an average of 62, and as Collins said postgame, that is simply not an acceptable number in what might be the most competitive collegiate basketball league in the country.
A major factor for the team’s lack of offensive firepower is their three-point shooting deficiencies. The ‘Cats shot only 29.4% from three against Iowa, and coming into the game ranked 270th nationally in terms of percentage.
“We’re not really built to be a three-point shooting team,” said Collins, “But when the shots are there, we have to knock them down.”
The head coach is right that his team isn’t loaded with dynamic shooting talent. However, in modern basketball there is no such thing as “a three-point shooting team.” That’s just a team. Everybody shoots threes. Good luck trying to win if you don’t.
Meanwhile, it seems like Northwestern doesn’t even necessarily know when the threes are, in fact, “there.” The ball was swung around to an open player in the corner or wing often last night, but unless there was no defender within a five foot radius of them, the target would almost always pass up the shot.
“I think it’s important in any game to shoot when you get open looks. If you don’t shoot that open look, you’re usually not going to get a better shot than that,” said Kopp, who led the team with 15 points. He and A.J. Turner combined for 13 of the team’s 17 long distance attempts in the game, with no other player even trying more than one.
Even if Northwestern is shooting threes at a less than an ideal percentage like they did in last night’s contest, though, that still provides consistently better offense than all the floaters and mid-range pull-ups that have infected their half-court sets. NU finished a laughably bad 6-23 on mid-range shots against Iowa, the equivalent to a value of 0.52 points per shot.
Compare that to their three-point shooting, where only making five out of 17 shots still nets 0.88 points per shot (and 0.94 per shot if you count the two free throws made by Nance after being fouled on one of his attempts). That’s nothing to write home about, but it still nets way more positive value than attempts from other areas on the court.
Really the only net gain in production the ‘Cats’ offense saw against Iowa was with their consistent ability to generate shots near the rim and earn foul shots (21 of them to be exact). That’s great and all, but it isn’t nearly enough to fix the problem. NU had a 46.1 TS%, meaning they shot only a little more than half as efficiently as Garza did alone. Not good.
Of course, the big cloud hanging over the offense’s struggles is the absence of freshman phenom Boo Buie.
“We certainly miss his scoring,” Collins said of Buie postgame. “Take that out of the lineup and it’s going to hurt, but I’m proud of what the other guys have been doing and we’ve got to find a way while he’s out to continue getting other guys going.”
While Buie certainly takes his share of tough, undesirable floaters, his three-point shooting and ability to attack the basket has helped lift the offense out of the mud in past contests. Before being sidelined with a stress fracture, he had the team’s highest usage rate, and was converting it into enough scoring to at least crack 70 relatively consistently.
It also doesn’t help that Buie’s injury occurred right before a 10 day stretch in which the ‘Cats played four games, adding a few more problems to their situation. Collins was quick to address post-game how the recent workload hurt the team’s performance.
“You look at our shooting, and a lot of that to me was fatigue, because we really weren’t cranking a lot of threes even though they were playing zone. We did a good job of getting the ball into the paint and getting around the basket, we were just having a hard time finishing and getting to the foul line.”
While tired legs were certainly a problem, it didn’t affect Northwestern the way Collins depicted it. They attempted 11 foul shots in the second half, one more than they did in the first, and shot a decent 55.5% on at rim field goal attempts. The bigger problem was that they only attempted five threes in the second half, and only made one.
Yet Collins seems to prefer this, as he often likens threes to a shot one settles for, rather than opportunity to seize a valuable shot. In his defense, due to the lack of shooting capability on the team, there’s no guarantee that the offense would improve if the three-point volume increased. However, the steady diet of off balance 17-footers over good contests from the defense hasn’t worked so far.
But one thing’s for sure: improvements have to be made. Because the Big Ten is loaded. Miller Kopp and co., even as they go through continued growing pains, know what that means.
“Nobody is going to feel sorry for us.”