After jumping out to a 6-1 record (and 3-0 in conference), Northwestern men’s basketball team has returned to Earth rapidly, losing its last five games.
It should be said that the ‘Cats are not losing to just anybody. The Big Ten is littered with great teams, and no win comes easy. All five of Northwestern’s conference losses have come against ranked teams, four of them against top-10 KenPom opponents. So while the stack of losses may feel disheartening after NU’s surprise start, it is not unexpected.
When NU began 3-0 in conference, it was a result of a dominant upset over top-five Michigan State and a comeback win against No. 23 Ohio State. As the Wildcats climbed up the national rankings, this team seemed ready to contend. They were fast, gave full effort and shot efficiently from three.
So how did this young group go from upstart to uninspiring? If the ‘Cats want to end the sour streak and regain any chance of reclaiming their season, here are three aspects to consider.
Improve shot selection
When Northwestern has been at its best, it’s been because of the three. For much of the season the Wildcats have lived and died by Boo Buie’s and Miller Kopp’s (among others’) ability to hit from beyond the arc. In their first three conference games, the Wildcats shot a healthy 41% from deep, and their success stretched the floor for players to penetrate and score easy baskets.
Over the past five games, Northwestern has shot just 31% from three. Buie has especially struggled in that time and has hit only 24% from deep. With teams prioritizing defending the him and the perimeter, NU has struggled.
Despite the struggles, the ‘Cats continue to take many threes. This may be a result of playing from behind, but it also seems like players forcing shots to get themselves back into a groove.
Guards Chase Audige and Buie have struggled to score with consistency during the losing skid. Rather than looking to players such as Pete Nance and Kopp to shoulder the offensive load, too many times they trigger low-percentage shots against tight defense.
NU needs struggling players to facilitate rather than score or focus on driving. Teams have been steadily guarding the perimeter, so Northwestern should try and work the ball inside. Additionally, this team does not thrive in half-court possessions, so to minimize the poor shot selection, playing faster may open up lanes for scoring, something that was seen early in the year.
Guard the three
Along with the Wildcats’ recent shooting struggles, they have trouble guarding teams on the perimeter. Teams have been scoring on NU at will the past five games (86 PPG alloweed), and the easiest way to prevent a scoring outburst is to prevent teams from getting outside looks.
In the first three conference games of the season, opponents shot just 27% from three. In the past five, teams have shot 42%, an increase of over 50%. And the efficiency has risen as teams have taken fewer deep attempts.
The Wildcats’ aggressive post defense also plays a role in giving up a high number of quality three-point attempts. Collins often draws up schemes that bring Anthony Gaines on a double team into the post, and while it may help in slowing down the opposing big men, teams have adjusted to finding the open man, often from deep.
In these situations, Collins can put more trust in his post defenders and minimize double teams. If the Wildcats’ struggles shooting from beyond the arc continue, it is much easier to keep up with teams who are scoring twos and not threes.
Northwestern’s most consistent struggle the past five seasons has been rebounding. The Wildcats ranked in the conference’s bottom half in rebounds per game during that span and rank 11th in the Big Ten this year. Additionally, opponents have out-rebounded in every conference matchup thus far. Since Northwestern hasn’t forced many turnovers, it’s left with fewer possessions. That combined with poor shooting streaks are a recipe for disaster.
With NU’s prolonged scoring struggles, getting second-chance points and preventing the same for opposing sides should be a priority for Collins and Co. Working the ball inside to players such as Nance and Ryan Young may increase second chances.
Playing bigger lineups could also contribute to a higher number of defensive rebounds. Northwestern typically plays a more spaced game where Nance acts as a stretch-five center. While this is an important component to maintain, running lineups with multiple bigs may help solve NU’s current rebounding deficiencies.