The Northwestern Wildcats: offensive juggernaut.
Flash back to exactly 365 days ago, two days after the ‘Cats survived a 54-52 nailbiter at Wisconsin to stay on the right side of the bubble. Just envision listening to someone read that first phrase aloud. It’d be hilarious.
It’s been well-documented that comedy became reality in November, and it’s stayed that way for the perimeter-centric 2023-24 team. Yet, that identity shift brought doubt. It’s easier to count on good defense than explosive offense, particularly for a slow-paced team that minimizes the number of possessions in a game. After all, three-point shooting in college basketball is the sport’s ever-spinning slot machine that hooks upset-hungry fans: It can boom or bust for nearly anyone at any time. And for teams that rely on it, the house almost always wins.
That inconsistency was one of Northwestern’s biggest issues during its first 12 games. It had the shot-makers to take down anyone, and a 10-of-20 three-point clip on a ton of heavily-contested looks pushed the Wildcats over No. 1 Purdue. But when those shooters went cold, as they did against Mississippi State (6-of-26 from deep), Western Michigan (6-of-26) and DePaul (8-of-32), Northwestern left itself susceptible to anyone.
Somehow, that inconsistency has vanished through the first half of Northwestern’s Big Ten slate, particularly in NU’s last four games. The Wildcats haven’t just been a good three-point shooting team, they’re arguably the hottest-shooting bunch in the entire nation right now.
Northwestern has shot an almost unfathomable 43.6% from beyond the arc in its last 10 games — the second-highest mark in the country behind Stanford. No team in the nation has a higher clip in conference play than NU’s 44.2%. The Wildcats have shot under 39% from deep just three times in Big Ten play, and that’s propelled them all the way to eighth nationally in three-point percentage.
As good as that is, Northwestern’s last four games have been even better. The ‘Cats made over half of their treys against Purdue, Illinois and Ohio State, teams with an average KenPom defensive efficiency rank of 26th. Only four teams since 2021-22 have done so for three consecutive games. Had Boo Buie not missed a desperation three near the end of NU’s overtime loss to Minnesota, the Wildcats would have extended the streak to four, which no one has done in at least the past three seasons.
“It comes in the flow of how we play,” said Ryan Langborg, who’s made 13 of his last 25 three-pointers. “We play well together, and we like to share the ball. It’s not about getting your personal stats. For us, it’s just about winning. Whoever’s making shots, keep feeding them.”
That ball movement has worked, and it’s created balance among Northwestern’s four perimeter threats. However, it hasn’t necessarily lit the explosion. Over NU’s last 10 games, its assist percentage on threes has been just 75%. Per CBB Analytics, that sits in Division I’s sixth percentile, and it’s well below Northwestern’s season average of 82.3%. Even from the eye test, it’s pretty easy to see that NU’s guards create a number of their looks by themselves.
While jarring, that number makes sense. Because Northwestern doesn’t get through many of its actions until late in the shot clock, it’s more unlikely that a defense leaves one of the shooters open. So, you get a number of sequences like this:
And, unfortunately, this:
But in the last four games, a staggering number of those possessions have ended with threes:
Of course, there’s also the classic “My best perimeter player is better than your best perimeter player.”
Northwestern attempts about five threes per game with 10 or fewer seconds left on the shot clock. It makes 35.2% of them and only converted 23.2% in nonconference play. However, NU has gone 48.9% in that situation since New Year’s Day. Over its last five games, NU has gone 13-of-24, and only eight of those makes have been assisted.
The biggest surprise is it isn’t Buie, or Langborg or even Ty Berry; it’s Brooks Barnhizer. In his last 10 games, he’s made a mind-boggling seven of the eight three-pointers he attempted with under 10 seconds in the shot clock. Against non-Big Ten competition, he shot just 3-of-13. That’s insane.
It gets a little crazier. With five seconds or fewer left on a possession, NU went 6-of-29 from deep in its first 17 games. Since Jan. 20, it is... 8-of-11 in that situation. Here’s where those threes came from, if you’re curious:
Given shot quality tends to be less than ideal in these situations, regression should absolutely be on the way. However, extending this to Northwestern’s three-point shooting as a whole presents some caveats. The Wildcats have only attempted around 23% of their threes all year with 10 seconds or fewer on the shot clock, and that mark has remained relatively consistent during this hot stretch.
Even if it falls down to earth, it won’t drastically hurt Northwestern’s overall percentage. NU is also shooting at an elite clip earlier in the shot clock, with most of its attempts coming between 10 and 20 seconds remaining. It’s just weird.
You know what else is? The eruption hasn’t opened up Buie’s inside game. In fact, No. 0 has gone a little cold. Even through the first Nebraska game, in which he went 2-of-15 from the field, Buie was shooting 42% in the paint outside the restricted area. Since then, he’s only made 32% of his seven attempts a game from that region.
Minnesota, in particular, did a really nice job of limiting Buie both inside and out. Pharrel Payne and Dawson Garcia prevented the star guard from bombing away early in the contest by throwing hard-hedges at him on high screens at the three-point line. Consequently, he didn’t attempt a three in the first half. When Buie began to work inside, UMN guided him closer to the restricted area without affording him a full head of steam to ensure it’d heavily contest everything. Northwestern’s floor general went just 2-of-9 on twos last Saturday.
Over the past few weeks, teams have often had to choose between one of three options: prevent Buie from getting to his sweet spot in the intermediate area, keep him from isolating for a three at the top of the key or allow him to go one-on-one to stop others from catching fire. Even the Golden Gophers couldn’t do all three; Langborg went 4-of-6 from three-point land while Buie managed to hit three of his own.
The shooting numbers should come down, but that wrinkle isn’t a fluke, and it’s a huge reason why the floodgates have opened for the ‘Cats. Now that three other starters have proven themselves as consistent long-range snipers, defenses can’t just throw two defenders at Buie and shut down everything. There are numerous other layers to worry about.
Nevertheless, Big Ten coaches have prioritized limiting Buie’s paint production. With No. 0’s paint shots rimming out and the three-ball going down at a clip the program has never seen, this is even more interesting:
Northwestern’s three-point attempt rate sits at around 37%, right around the Division I median. Over the last 10 games, its rate is even lower. That’s not atypical for the top shooting teams, but it’s intriguing for a four-guard group like NU that doesn’t have a scoring center.
The Wildcats still generate two-pointers at a good clip, but it’s largely because of their midrange game. According to ShotQuality.com, Northwestern only takes 76% of its shots at the rim or from beyond the arc, which is 304th in the country. Although the ‘Cats have survived that, relying on contested midrange jumpers to generate offense in a slow-paced game is just asking for inefficiency.
It begs the question: When a team shoots as well as Northwestern has, shouldn’t a coach hunt for more three-pointers in their play designs?
“As the season’s gone on, we’ve learned how to use our parts even better,” Chris Collins said. “But you have to take what the defense gives you. I don’t think you come into the game saying, ‘You’ve got to make 12 threes tonight.’ You’ve got to [consider] how the game is being defended, what the other team is trying to do to you.”
Northwestern’s rematch with Nebraska brings those considerations full circle. Buie noted how in the first game, the Huskers kept two defenders near him on ball screens to keep him from getting downhill. Rienk Mast did a terrific job of taking away his midrange game. That prompted NU to turn to the three-ball in Lincoln. It launched 31 shots, its second-highest total of the season, but only drained 10 in the 75-69 loss. Collins expects to continue relying on three-point production on Wednesday night against a UNL team that surrenders the nation’s 41st-highest three-point rate.
“There probably will be a lot of threes taken [against Nebraska] just because that’s how [it] defends,” he added. “They really protect the paint. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re hunting threes. I just think when you look at the skillset of some of our offensive players, they’re good shooters. You’re gonna call their numbers and try to put them in position where they can be successful.”
Northwestern is doing all of this on a tempo that’s approaching a six-year low at 65 possessions a game. Five high-major teams have shot as well with an adjusted pace as slow in the last five seasons: 2022-23 Michigan State, 2022-23 Penn State, the 2021-22 and 2018-19 Virginia Tech teams. Oh, and 2018-19 Virginia, which won the national title.
I’m not sure whether fans should be in awe, concerned that the law of averages is cooking up the ugliest rock fight of all time against Rutgers next Thursday, or both. Ultimately, it remains to be seen how long this run holds up (hell, it could end with a thud tonight), but NU’s shot-making deserves some admiration.