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Northwestern needs to change its inefficient style of offense to start winning this season

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Simply rolling out the ball and hoping for improvement in 2020-21 won’t be enough.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Ask any Northwestern fan you know, and they’re likely to tell you that last year’s men’s basketball team disappointed. They lost three “buy games” to Merrimack, Radford and Hartford, defensive leader Anthony Gaines went out for the season and the young squad blew several second half leads to Big Ten opponents as the year wore on.

At face value, the arrow is pointing up in the 2020-21 season, as the ‘Cats’ should improve or simply get more lucky in this pandemic-altered season. However, if they want to ascend from the basement of college basketball’s deepest conference, they need to start taking smarter shots.

On October 13, 2020, Simon Gerszberg launched his college basketball website, ShotQuality.com (which is awesome so I’d recommend you all check it out). When scrolling through his database of numbers, something stuck out to me — not only did Northwestern rank the worst team in the Big Ten in both offensive and defensive adjusted shot quality, but there was a wide gap between them and every team east of Lincoln.

(Offensively, the ‘Cats 1.06 SQ was tied with Nebraska for the worst mark, whereas Iowa had the best with 1.21. As for defense, higher numbers are worse, so Northwestern’s 1.00 mark puts them at the bottom of the conference, whereas Ohio State’s 0.90 SQ led the pack).

So what is Shot Quality?

“Essentially, it’s the expected percentages of the shots each individual player is getting throughout the game,” Gerszberg told me. “In a vacuum, the two best shots in college basketball are drives and catch-and-shoot threes. But obviously, basketball isn’t played in a vacuum, so even though post-ups are generally inefficient, when Vernon Carey took one [in the 2019-20 season], it was one of the most efficient shots in all of NCAA. Short answer — a good shot value is one that is a high value percentage for that individual player.”

When asked about the ideal shot distribution for a college basketball team, Gerszberg said “40 percent of the shots should be at the rim, and the other 60 percent should be catch and shoot threes.” That’s obviously unattainable given defensive strategy and the need for off-the-dribble jumpers as a counter to good defense. But that’s why it’s ideal.

Let’s see how Northwestern did at optimizing its shot selection.

Those aren’t straight points per shot numbers in that left-hand column, as Gerszberg’s metric takes into account offensive rebounding potential for a team, but nonetheless, that red ain’t there because it’s good folks.

The two-most efficient actions in basketball — drives and C&S threes — were the attacks Northwestern utilized the least in 2019-20. In everything else, especially those horrifically sweet post-ups and short mid-range jumpers, they out attempted their competition (Narrator: This did not end well).

It’s not as if everything was bad. Miller Kopp’s three-point shooting was efficient all year, and Ryan Young, while not a pristine post-up scorer, finished well amongst the trees once his perimeter-based teammates shoveled it to him off drives. Below is the chart of the team’s most common play types last season according to ShotQuality.

Again, there is some really good stuff at the top, but the red outweighing the green is a problem.

Even head coach Chris Collins agreed that the offense needed improvement at one point last season. Following his team’s 75-62 loss to Iowa last season, he said the offense had to be better and specifically that, “62 points is not going to be enough,” when evaluating his team’s performance.

However, his follow-up to how they could alter said struggling offense was not in line with an analytical, improve-the-efficiency approach. “We’re not really built to be a three-point shooting team,” Collins said, “But when the shots are there, we have to knock them down.”

They certainly didn’t try to be a three-point shooting team in 2019-20. Boo Buie and Miller Kopp led the team in three-point attempts per 100 possessions by a wide margin, at 10.2 and 9.8 respectively, per BartTorvik. Those marks were the 395th and 444th-most frequent three-point rates nationally, in a sport that houses 353 Division I teams. Team leader in three-point percentage Robbie Beran (40 percent) finished fifth in attempts per 100.

At times, the flow of the offense seemed specifically designed to get tough mid-range shots. Take this off-ball curl action the ‘Cats like to run for Kopp.

Kopp’s greatest strength is that he can shoot threes at a high level off of movement, so why is he ducking into the elbow? Kopp shot 39.6 percent on threes last season, which equates to 1.19 points per shot. On two-point shots that did not take place at the rim, he shot 40.1 percent per BartTorvik, averaging out to just over 0.80 points per shot. Why just willingly sacrifice 0.39 points? It seems small on one possession, but run that play 100 times and suddenly the difference feels significant.

And yes, I’m aware Ryan Young nailed that three in the second clip. It was one of the three triples he made last year on the way to a 14.3 percent season from behind the arc. A good result on one play does not a good process make.

On the defensive side of the ball, the need for efficiency isn’t as pressing, but improvements should be welcomed nonetheless.

According to Hoop-Math, Northwestern’s opponents took 35.4 percent of their shots at the rim, 22.4 percent not at the rim but still inside the arc and 42.4 percent behind the three point line. Compare that to the ‘Cats, who posted frequency percentages of 32.9, 33.2 and 33.9 in those respective court areas, and it becomes clear that their foes have become more efficient by trading off those 18-footers for shots that are worth a whole ‘nother point if you just step back five feet.

Iowa finished with the most efficient offense in the Big Ten last year, and this screenshot alone shows the difference in philosophies between the two squads.

To be fair, the Northwestern’s best post defender — Ryan Young — was on the bench due to foul trouble, but that’s not even Luka Garza catching the ball in the post. It’s career 5.1 points per game scorer Ryan Kriener, who caught the ball with Robbie Beran on his back. The ‘Cats freak out anyways, giving Kriener the cozy choice to whip the ball to one of three above-average outside shooters. For record, he chose Mr. 34.0 percent, who politely obliged by swishing home the trey.

I don’t mean to be a downer (though my more optimistic friends might argue otherwise). There is certainly a world where everything clicks right for this team and they shoot up the Big Ten standing into the tier of potential NCAA Tournament teams.

You could even make the argument that without Pat Spencer, who despite being a great guy, freak athlete and unbelievable story, played a very inefficient brand of ball, the team’s shot quality is bound to rise. Spencer took 111 field goal attempts at the rim and actually shot an acceptable 60.4 percent on them. The only problem is he took more non-rim two’s (118 FGA), and clanked them to the tune of 36.4 percent.

Replace Spencer with a promising marksman in freshman Ty Berry and an increased role for Buie, and there should be a lot less floaters in Evanston this winter.

But at the end of the day, it’s more scheme and mindset than personnel. Northwestern won’t become Dallas Mavericks-lite just by waking up one day and deciding that the time has come. It needs to be a specific point of emphasis all season long.

Following that noted loss to Iowa, Kopp was asked about the team’s shot selection on the night. Throughout his answer, this line stuck with me the most.

“I think it’s important in any game to shoot when you get open looks,” said Kopp.” If you don’t shoot that open look, you’re usually not going to get a better shot than that.”

To conclude my conversation with Simon, I asked him what needed to change the most for Northwestern to be more successful in this pandemic shortened season. His response?

“They had a higher percentage of midrange [attempts] than anyone [in the] Big Ten, and less catch and shoots or drives to the basket than anyone [in the] Big Ten. I’d flip that ASAP.”

Hard agree. This season, Northwestern needs to flip the script, and the way to do that is by chasing efficient basketball more intently.

Fingers crossed.