For the most part, the past few months have treated Northwestern men’s basketball well. Sitting at 10-2 with one of those two losses a one-point defeat to an Auburn team that ranks 18th in adjusted efficiency, NU is in about as good of a position as one could ask for heading into the new year.
At the same time, the ‘Cats have a ton left to prove, especially on offense. With their defense having been so strong early on, it will be intriguing to see how they will handle the Big Ten gauntlet. There’s nothing like looking at some fun stats to build up that intrigue. So, here are some interesting numbers — many of them courtesy of CBB Analytics — from Northwestern’s first 12 games.
Let’s start with the one everyone seems to be talking about:
8: Number of teams ranked above Northwestern in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency
Northwestern’s defense isn’t just playing well: it’s on pace to play some of the best basketball in program history. KenPom’s defensive efficiency data goes back to 2002, and the only Northwestern teams to post a ranking even close to this year’s squad were the 2013-14 and 2018-19 teams, which ranked 23rd and 19th in the nation, respectively. And they both couldn’t manage to go without an off-night against a non-Power Six foe before the Big Ten regular season kicked off, which the 2022-23 team has done.
It’s true that NU’s non-conference strength of schedule rating ranks 357th — second-to-last in the entire country. With the tougher competition to come, the defensive rating should creep above 90 by the end of January. But that doesn’t change the fact that Chris Collins has never had this much defensive versatility at his disposal. With many perimeter-happy teams on the docket (including Illinois, a team that’s heading to Evanston on Wednesday), the ‘Cats can morph into a nightmare matchup if they can keep forcing contested shots late in the shot clock.
The team’s performance as a whole has been great, but who would I be to leave out the driving force behind that success?
4.92: Chase Audige’s number of steals per 100 possessions
Audige has always flashed the potential to become one of the Big Ten’s most switchable perimeter stoppers. Now, he might be one of the country’s best defensive playmakers. There are are only 11 players in the entire Power Six who have a higher steals per 100 possessions mark than Audige.
The senior clogs passing lanes with tenacity and consistency, which has translated to his dynamic transition offense in a huge way...
7.14: Audige’s number of fastbreak points per 100 possessions
Look at this.
Once again, Audige stands out among all Power Six players. It demonstrates that Audige’s takeaways aren’t just creating extra possessions for the ‘Cats, which is crucial given their shooting struggles; they’re also jumpstarting clear transition drives to the basket. NU has averaged 66 possessions per contest through 12 games. That means Audige is scoring almost five fastbreak points a game, which doesn’t even take into account the offense he generates with his transition playmaking, another aspect where he has taken a giant leap.
Like many of these numbers, this mark should also go down given that Big Ten teams will likely turn the ball at a lower rate than many of Northwestern’s non-conference opponents. Regardless, generating that much disruption and effective transition offense can swing a game’s result by itself.
And we’re not done with Audige just yet...
+33.1: Northwestern’s difference in net rating with Audige on the floor vs. him off of it
For the past two seasons, Northwestern’s postseason chances have hinged on Audige’s offensive efficiency. In his first two years in purple and white, he could never seem to establish consistency on both ends. Well, if this doesn’t scream Even-Year Northwestern on New Year’s Eve, then what does?
In other words, Northwestern’s point differential per 100 possessions this season is 33.1 points higher with Audige on the court than it is when he’s on the bench. Sticking with the aforementioned 66-possession game average, that’s about 22 points a game. That net rating is in the top percentile among all Division I players thus far.
Although Audige has played 79.2% of NU’s minutes and has yet to face most of the Big Ten, this is still a remarkable turnaround. Any long stretches of offensive efficiency Northwestern has enjoyed have largely stemmed from his play. If Audige can keep his offensive prowess up in conference play (and if Boo Buie, Robbie Beran or another secondary option can join him), who knows what this winter will hold for the Wildcats.
54.6: The percentage of shots at the rim that NU makes
Ask someone to write a recipe for inefficient offensive play, and horrible paint shooting will probably be step one. There are just eight teams in all of Division I shooting at a worse clip at the rim than Northwestern. For a perimeter-centric team, that’s bad. For a team with a shot chart that looks like the one below, defensive play that’s as stellar as any team in the country isn’t just a plus, but an urgent need.
With a number of elite interior defenders coming up on the schedule, it’s crucial that NU finds its groove inside. If the paint shots don’t start falling, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for Northwestern to win games against more talented opponents with such a small margin for error, especially given that its defensive play is due for some regression.