Big Ten Geeks: Northwestern 2013-14 Preview

Change is afoot in Evanston, as the Northwestern basketball program moves away from the Princeton offense and into a new era. Will that change bring immediate success?

After 13 seasons, the Bill Carmody era has ended. It can be easy to forget after last season’s struggles, but Carmody elevated the Northwestern basketball program from “horrid” to “mediocre” in his time there. To wit, the Wildcats made four straight NITs before last season’s injury-plagued  campaign.  Four NITs might seem like a silly accomplishment to tout, but let’s not forget that this program went to only three NITs over its entire pre-Carmody history. It’s plain to see that Bill Carmody is the best coach ever to oversee the Northwestern basketball program, so his dismissal is not without risk. Clearly, Northwestern AD Jim Phillips is looking to move up another rung on the college basketball food chain.

Taking on that challenge is Chris Collins, the longtime Duke assistant who was a high school All-American in nearby Northbrook. It’s not often that a first head coaching gig comes at the Big Ten level, but Collins will have to make that sizable leap. As such, we have no head coaching track record from which to project the strengths and weaknesses of this new Northwestern team, but we can look to the particulars of the Duke program at which Collins spent the last 13 seasons as an assistant. You don’t expect a guy that worked under Mike Krzyzewski for that long to go off in a radically different direction once he has a program of his own.

Collins has stated that his initial focus at Northwestern has been on the defensive end, and that is indeed a great place to start. Northwestern has posted the conference’s worst defensive efficiency for four years running, and it was this permissive defense that dashed NCAA tournament dreams while Carmody’s ultra-efficient offense did its thing. At Duke, Collins watched Krzyzewski instill defensive philosophies that figure to serve Collins well as he retools the Wildcats.

Duke’s overplay defense is exceptional at limiting open looks on the perimeter. The Blue Devils consistently hold opponents to one of the lowest three-point attempt percentages (3PA/FGA) in the nation.

Duke’s perimeter defenders close out aggressively with the knowledge that help defenders will step up when an opponent goes around them. That’s the crucial other half of this equation–if you simply overplay the perimeter without proper help in the lane, you’re just going to exchange threes for layups and free throws. Duke does an excellent job of helping, and that help often leads to opponents taking mid-range jumpers or committing a charge. Either of these outcomes is a win for the defense.

As evidence, here’s the shot distribution for Duke opponents over the past three seasons (courtesy of hoop-math.com):

Shot Type 2011 Duke opponents 2012 Duke opponents 2013 Duke opponents D1 Average
At Rim 39 35 34 34
2-point Jumpers 37 41 39 33
3-point Jumpers 25 24 27 33

On average, D1 teams dedicate about a third of their shots to two-point jumpers. Against Duke’s defense, that number jumps closer to 40 percent. That’s an awful lot of low-value shots, and that distribution is a large part of what makes Duke’s defense successful.

Of course, it’s much easier to extol the virtues of this approach on paper than it is to implement it on the basketball court, and that will be Collins’ challenge. With the return of Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb, along with the presumed Sophomore Leaps of Kale Abrahamson, Tre Demps, and Alex Olah, this Northwestern offense should be decent enough to compete.

That said, it will take a huge improvement on the defensive end for the Wildcats to get into the bubble discussion, and it feels too soon for such a transformation. Northwestern won’t be a pushover this season, but it won’t really sniff the bubble either. Chris Collins is making progress on the recruiting trail, and he certainly has the pedigree to be successful long-term in Evanston and maybe even take the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament. It just won’t happen this season.

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