The Wildcats went through some odd twists and turns during Chris Collins's first year in Evanston. With Drew Crawford on his way out and a wave of recruits coming in, it was obviously a transition year for Northwestern. Collins spent much of the season trying to figure out a gameplan and style of play. The offense never really got going, but the 'Cats stepped up their efforts defensively to get some big W's. The team's sophomores developed into key pieces, and roster changes will create a young, talented team next season. Here's what went right/wrong for Northwestern this season:
What Went Right
Northwestern's two sophomores, Alex Olah and Tre Demps, evolved into vital pieces during the 2013-14 season. Olah, the team's lone center, was guaranteed the starting spot in the post, but his production as a freshman was minimal. He averaged just 6.1 points and 4.1 rebounds in more than 22 minutes per game. He got to work in the offseason, playing on the Romanian national U20 team. He developed some nice post moves and improved his rebounding skills. This season he shot 50.9% from the field, up from 41.5 percent last year, while averaging 9.1 points and 5.2 points per game. Olah went through some cold stretches (he didn't score in double figures once from Jan. 9 to Feb. 13) and struggled against the Big Ten's best posts, but he made significant strides. Olah needs to continue his development because Collins will be relying on him heavily in the post the next two years.
Tre Demps certainly turned some heads this season. He went from role player off the bench to NU's third leading scorer, averaging 11 points per game. Demps became Collins go-to guy when the 'Cats desperately needed a basket, and he sually delivered. He hit clutch shots in wins against Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin (that's right, NU won in Madison this season). Demps upped his minutes per game from 18.8 to 29.8, so you can expect him to be a big contributor again next season. Because the offense was pretty stagnant, Demsp did a large portion of his scoring in isolation settings. If the 'Cats can develop a more efficient offense with smooth ball movement, Demps could put up big numbers next year.
It's not often that a college basketball team only has six players on campus. But that just happens to be the case in Evanston. Nikola Cerina and James Montgomery III finished their senior seasons, and after five seasons, it's time for NU great Drew Crawford to move on. Seeing the rapid changes ushered in by Chris Collins, three 'Cats also transferred this season. Kale Abrahamson will be going to Drake, and Chier Ajou is on his way to Seton Hall. Aaron Liberman, who was not on scholarship, will transfer from NU too.The transfers opened up two more scholarships for Chris Collins to work with in recruiting.
In 2014, Collins will bring in the best recruiting class in Northwestern basketball history. Four three-stars, one four-star and one transfer will make sure NU actually has some depth next year. Just this week Collins locked up fifth-year transfer Jeremiah Kreisberg from Yale. Kreisberg should back-up Alex Olah and provide some much needed size on a small Wildcat team. Four-star small forward Vic Law is likely the highest-rated recruit in NU history. Ranked 66th in the ESPN 100, Law is extremely athletic and throws down some vicious dunks. Guards Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Johnnie Vassar are all bound to get some minutes in the backcourt as freshman. Gavin Skelly may need to develop some more before hitting the court, but if he surprises in practice, Skelly could take over a power forward right away. Six returning players and six new guys will make up NU's roster next year. There will be a very new look at Welsh-Ryan in November.
What Went Wrong
Northwestern adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom was 309th in the country last year. That tells the story in itself. Ball movement was practically nonexistent. When there was ball movement, it was just a swing around the 3-point arch. The 'Cats didn't work it inside to Olah very often, but when they did, he was fairly efficient. NU's offense against the zone was particularly poor. There was almost no penetration or high percentage looks to be found. No matter who the 'Cats were facing, possessions would often end with Tre Demps attempting to take his defender one-on-one from the top of the key, or someone would toss up a three. During the regular season, Northwestern shot more threes than any other team in the Big Ten, yet they had the worst 3-point percentage at 30.6 percent. It just was not a winning formula.
The Wildcats didn't deal with a ton of injuries this year, but there were some significant losses during the season. JerShon Cobb missed two games in December and then six games at the end of the season due to lower body injuries. The 'Cats really had no shot down the stretch without their second-leading scorer. Dave Sobolewski started the season off pretty poorly, and the concussion he received in January only made things worse. He missed six games and played very sparingly in February. Sobo was not the captain and team leader Collins might have expected. Sobolewski finished the season averaging 5 points and 2.4 assists per game.
What Went Right and Wrong
Style of Play
Defense certainly deserved to be in "what went right" for Northwestern this season, but the defense was truly a result of their style of play. Collins originally wanted to play an up-tempo style where the 'Cats would get out on the break. He planned to incorporate a lot of on-ball screens and get some of his stars in isolation scoring settings. Northwestern straggled along in November and December trying to run with its opponents and outscore them. They simply didn't have the right personnel to run that system. It wasn't until Jan. 12, that something clicked. That Sunday, the 'Cats beat a then-ranked Illinois team 49-43. Defense and slowing the pace was the only way the 'Cats were going to get some victories in the Big Ten.
Relying on that defense, Northwestern won five of seven games in January and early February, including victories at Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota. The Badgers and Hoosiers both shot below 30 percent from the field in those games. NU was getting opponents out of rhythm by milking the shot clock and forcing the slow pace. The 'Cats played outstanding help defense, double teaming in the post and rotating to open shooters. Of course, the success couldn't last forever, and Northwestern went on a 7-game losing streak after beating Minnesota. Collins put together a gameplan that worked outstandingly well for the 'Cats. It was just a shame that it wasn't implemented until November.