The Northwestern Wildcats may be more relevant as a program heading into this season than at any point in recent memory and it has a lot to do with the offensive renovation in Evanston.
Though the Wildcats have only put together a 19-36 record under head coach Chris Collins, many are hopeful that Collins can finally get Northwestern to the promised land of the NCAA Tournament. Of course, the program has never made the NCAA Tournament and to even be in the discussion is a big move in the right direction.
Much of the excitement comes from Northwestern’s improved recruiting, but the biggest part of the upward trend of the Wildcats has been on the offensive end of the floor.
Style of play is often overrated in sports. After all, the goal of the game is simply to score the most points, regardless of whether it’s 77-75 or 45-43. Teams like North Carolina may play fast and teams like Virginia may play slow, but all that matters is whether those teams pull out the win.
Having said that, there does seem to be a trend in college basketball that benefits efficient offensive teams. In fact, over the last five seasons, Final Four teams on average have been ranked 3.25 spots higher in offensive KenPom ranking than defensive ranking. A slight difference, but a trend nonetheless.
The good news for Northwestern is that the Wildcats are trending up offensively. Big time.
Before Collins arrived in Evanston, former head coach Bill Carmody has assembled some very good offensive teams. Unfortunately, Carmody not only failed to provide any quality defense to go along with the offenses, but also failed to sustain that success. In Carmody’s final season, the Wildcats were rated just No. 151 nationally in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metric.
Though the offense regressed to No. 309 nationally in Northwestern’s first year with Collins – at least partially due to the loss of several key seniors – the Wildcats really hit a stride in year two. Northwestern not only jumped all the way to the No. 94 rated offense on KenPom, but also moved from dead last in offensive efficiency during Big Ten play to ninth in the conference.
(Stats via KenPom.com.)
So, what happened? Even if Collins is one of the best offensive coaches in the country, it doesn’t explain a jump of over 200 spots in just one offseason. So, what else changed for the Wildcats?
The key change that allowed this improvement was the addition of a talented 2014 recruiting class that saw major minutes last season. Perhaps the biggest thing these additions brought to the table came in the form of perimeter shooting.
Last season, freshmen Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey, and Bryant McIntosh combined to shoot 35.8 percent from three point range. This may not look exceptional on paper, but considering that Northwestern shot just 30.7 percent as a team the season prior, it’s pretty significant. It also had a huge impact on the team’s overall offensive performance.
(Stats via KenPom.com.)
There is certainly more to credit for Northwestern’s massive offensive improvement than better perimeter shooting, but it’s hard not to see the impact the additions of the 2014 recruiting class had on Northwestern’s shooting. This was a team that took few shots and still got more points off three point attempts.
It’s pretty easy to see the impact of that type of trend.
Now, with the Wildcats returning virtually the entire roster from last season and particularly, the team’s talented 2014 recruiting class, there should be hope for even more progress this season. Along with this, the program is set to add another talented recruiting class in 2015, including forward Aaron Falzon, who is considered to be a very good shooter as well.
There’s no telling how much Northwestern can improve on the offensive end of the floor this season, but if the Wildcats can continue the trend of last year, don’t be surprised if Northwestern ends up as an better offensive teams by season’s end.
And if so, maybe Northwestern can finally get that NCAA Tournament monkey off its back.