I typically contain my missives about Northwestern into tweets, but after watching last night’s narrow loss to Georgia Tech and reading the discussion online I wanted to share some extended thoughts about the Wildcats.
This site certainly isn’t going to become Inside NU anytime soon, but here are a few longer (hopefully somewhat original) thoughts.
Northwestern is in trouble. Quite frankly the Wildcats are quickly running out of time to build an NCAA Tournament worthy resume. A season after making their first ever Big Dance, NU has failed every major test is has faced through the first three weeks of the college basketball season (Creighton, Texas Tech, and Georgia Tech). The Yellow Jackets without superstar sophomore Josh Okogie are certainly not an NCAA Tournament quality opponent, but the game was on the road—KenPom for instance categorized it as an “A” quality game. What GT is though is well coached. Josh Pastner has once again built a robust defense for a team that is playing at a glacial pace. It’s not pretty basketball, but they are 4-1.
Northwestern, on the other hand, is now 4-3 and ranked 50th in KenPom and 67th in T-Rank. Neither is a good sign. The Big Ten, while down, still presents many difficult challenges and that’s reflected in Northwestern’s projected record on both sites (15-16, 7-11 on BartTorvik and 17-14, 9-9 on KenPom). Neither of those records would be enough for NU to make it’s second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. The former would require a miracle run to even be considered for the NIT, while the latter probably marks NU for a home NIT game. (And would they even want that at Allstate Arena?)
But maybe this team can improve? The early signs certainly aren’t promising.
The biggest concern in Northwestern underlying performance thus far is the Wildcats’ ability to defend the paint. Through seven games NU has allowed opponents to shot 51.7 percent on two-point shots, which ranks 220th in the nation. That is after Georgia Tech shot 12-29 (41.4 percent) on twos last night. Ken Pomeroy recently wrote at The Athletic about how early shooting trends bode well for Gonzaga. Well, those same trends are not good for Northwestern. There is a strong relationship between a team’s 2-point defense through six games and its overall 2-point defense. On the other hand, while at Northwestern, Chris Collins has consistently built a defense that is good at defending inside the arc. The Wildcats have ranked in the top 60 in the nation in 2-point defense in each of his first four seasons.
But it’s also worth noting that through seven games this defense looks a little different than the ones Collins coached in the past. The defensive turnover percentage is dramatically higher. After watching the GT game my hypothesis is this: Last season, Northwestern’s wings—especially with Sanjay Lumpkin leading the way—were good at walling up on defense before the ball reached the paint. This season defenders have been rotated up a spot and are having a harder time to staying in front of their man. (GT also seemed willing to let its freshman point guard Jose Alvarado drive at Bryant McIntosh.) That has caused foul issues for Dererk Pardon (who is a good, athletic interior help defender). Pardon is now seeing more opponents coming towards him instead of being able to slide over to cut off an attack and he’s committing 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes. GT’s offense, when it worked on Tuesday night, was generated by lots of cuts directly at Pardon to put pressure on him as a primary defender.
Going into this season NU fans hoped that either sophomore Isiah Brown or freshman Anthony Gaines would be able to provide some extra help on the wing defensively off the bench. But while Brown leads the Wildcats in steal percentage through seven games, his offense has made him nearly unplayable (2-10 from the field with six turnovers thus far). Gaines has also struggled offensively.
Brown’s play early in the season is symptomatic of Northwestern’s larger personnel problems. Collins has yet to find a single reliable contributor off the bench. Northwestern’s bench was outscored 13-5 against Georgia Tech and has been outscored 144-66 this season. In just one game (against Sacred Heart) has the Northwestern bench outscored its opponent. If Scottie Lindsey (as was the case on Tuesday) or Vic Law (against Texas Tech) are off offensively, who knows where the necessary offensive production will come from. Gaines played four minutes in Atlanta and took two awful shots. Aaron Falzon hasn’t found his rhythm yet after missing last season due to injury. Jordan Ash was fine against the Yellow Jackets, but he replaces Northwestern’s most reliable offensive threat in McIntosh (his preference for floating two-pointers be darned). Collins needs to find another offensive contributor and he needs to find one fast.
The issue with many of this is that it feels personnel based more than schematic, so the changes might not be immediately obvious. Despite some questionable personnel decisions Collins has shown the ability to be an effective game-planner. Maybe he’ll figure it out. But there is a good deal of urgency. Northwestern opens Big Ten play on Friday at home against Illinois. It’s an important game in NU’s pursuit of a decent conference record and creating a salvageable situation come the new year. If the Wildcats can get that game there’s still a (somewhat reasonable) path to the postseason. Lose and any NCAA Tournament dreams may have come tumbling down just as the calendar turned to December.