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How Much Progress Did The Northwestern Wildcats Really Make In 2014-15?

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A look back at the 2014-15 season for the Wildcats through a 10 point analysis designed to reveal what went right, what went wrong, and whether the team met expectations for the season.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 BTPowerhouse Recapitulation Series will look back at the season of each Big Ten team through a 10 point analysis designed to reveal what went right, what went wrong, and whether the team met expectations in 2014-15.  The series will be released during early summer in reverse order of conference standings, meaning the last place team will be reviewed first and the Big Ten champions will be reviewed last.

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The 2014-15 season was a blossoming one for Northwestern.  Though the Wildcats did not have large expectations as they entered the season, many believed it could be one of progress for the program.  They had failed to make the postseason in 2013-14, but Northwestern returned several key contributors and was bringing in one of its best recruiting classes in program history.  Unfortunately, the team was unable to build off what appeared to be a deeper and more talented roster and were again unable to make the postseason in 2014-15.  Once again, fans were left waiting on that elusive NCAA Tournament appearance for at least another season.

Let's look back at it it in its entirety.

1. Preseason Expectations

Entering the season, it was difficult to place exactly where expectations should be for Northwestern.  They were coming off an underwhelming 14-19 season in 2013-14, but were relatively competitive down the stretch and pulled off upsets against Iowa and Wisconsin in Big Ten play.  Along with this, they were bringing in several exciting prospects including 4-star prospect Vic Law.  On paper, it seemed as if the team should take a step forward, but significant questions regarding how far head coach Chris Collins could take a 14-19 team and how much of an impact the freshmen could have during their first season left many wondering about the team.  Due to these concerns, I put Northwestern at #12 in the conference in my Big Ten preview and figured it would be a growing year for the program.

Here was my preseason storyline for Northwestern:

The biggest storylines for Northwestern this season are going to be the attempts to replace do-it-all senior Drew Crawford from last season and what has become one of the most exciting incoming recruiting classes in Northwestern basketball history.  There's a lot of excitement in the Northwestern program right now.  Last year, the team was not great, but they were a lot better than an 11th place conference finish would indicate.  Add in 5 new recruits including a Top 100 recruit and a nice transfer for depth and you have the signs of a team about to take a big leap.  However, it's important to remember that this team is also losing their best player from last year.  From the outside, it looks like everything is moving in the right direction, except for the departure of Crawford.  Perhaps the new additions and rising players like Alex Olah can make up for Crawford's departure, but these two storylines will be the things that ultimately determine the success of Northwestern's 2014-15 season.

The Big Ten writers also had doubts and put Northwestern at #13 in their preseason Big Ten standings behind Penn State and ahead of Rutgers.  Generally, there was a lot of optimism about the direction of the Northwestern program before the season, but with the loss of Drew Crawford and the fact that many of the expected contributors would be young and inexperienced, most viewed 2014-15 as a transitional year.

2. Non-Conference Play

With the loss of its best player in Drew Crawford and the introduction of several young contributors, expectations were not high for non-conference play.  Most thought there would be more talent on the 2014-15 Wildcats than on the prior year's team, but it could take months before it started to click.  Still, with just a few quality opponents and only two road games, there were enough winnable games to finish with just two or three losses if things went right.  Here is how things ended up playing out.

Northwestern 2014-15 Non-Conference:
  • Win (1-0): Houston Baptist, 65-58
  • Win (2-0): Brown, 69-56
  • Win (3-0): North Florida, 69-67
  • Win (4-0): Elon, 68-67 OT
  • Win (5-0): Miami (OH), 55-46
  • Loss (5-1): Northern Iowa, 61-42
  • Loss (5-2): Georgia Tech, 66-58
  • Loss (5-3): Butler, 65-56
  • Win (6-3): Mississippi Valley St., 101-49
  • Loss (6-4): Central Michigan, 80-67
  • Win (7-4): Western Michigan, 67-61
  • Win (8-4): Illinois Chicago, 63-46
  • Win (9-4): Northern Kentucky, 76-55
Overall, Northwestern had a solid, but not great performance in non-conference play.  They played a total of 13 games and went 9-4, but the team failed to beat a single Top 100 KenPom team and their only wins outside Evanston came against bad Brown and Miami (OH) teams.  Avoiding upsets is certainly nice for a team coming off a bad season, but without any quality wins, the nine non-conference wins didn't mean a whole lot.

To put this in perspective, consider this.  Northwestern began the season at #77 in KenPom.  Preseason rankings are undoubtedly imperfect, but they do at least give fans an idea of how teams can be expected to perform before the season.  Despite being ranked #77 before the season and going 9-4 during non-conference play, the Wildcats dropped 60 spots and were ranked #137 when they entered Big Ten play.  Again, winning the majority of their games and avoiding upsets was nice, but not really all that meaningful.

At the conclusion of non-conference play, the jury was still out on Northwestern.  Yes, fans could safely say the Wildcats were neither a great or terrible team, but they had not shown whether they were good or just mediocre.  It would take more games against quality opponents before fans could really place where Northwestern belonged in the grand scheme of things.

3. Conference Play

Though Northwestern would get an easy opening Big Ten game against Rutgers, they were going to receive plenty of challenges in the first few weeks of conference action.  Not only would they face Big Ten title favorite Wisconsin, but also Illinois, Maryland, Michigan State, and Ohio State.  Most did not expect the Wildcats to get off to a great start, but their start would be revealing on where the roster stood in Chris Collins' second season.  Here is how they performed.

Northwestern 2014-15 Big Ten Play:
  • Win (1-0): Rutgers, 51-47
  • Loss (1-1): Wisconsin, 81-58
  • Loss (1-2): Michigan State, 84-77 OT
  • Loss (1-3): Illinois, 72-67
  • Loss (1-4): Michigan, 56-54
  • Loss (1-5): Ohio State, 69-67
  • Loss (1-6): Maryland, 68-67
  • Loss (1-7): Purdue, 68-60
  • Loss (1-8): Nebraska, 76-60
  • Loss (1-9): Wisconsin, 65-50
  • Loss (1-10): Michigan State, 68-44
  • Win (2-10): Iowa, 66-61 OT
  • Win (3-10): Minnesota, 72-66
  • Win (4-10): Penn State, 60-39
  • Win (5-10): Indiana, 72-65
  • Loss (5-11): Illinois, 86-60
  • Win (6-11): Michigan, 82-78 2OT
  • Loss (6-12): Iowa, 69-52
Perhaps no team in the Big Ten had a more frustrating start to conference play this season than Northwestern.  They opened with a win against Rutgers, then lost their next 10 games including five home games and games against Illinois, Michigan, and Nebraska.  There's no doubt that it was a difficult opening stretch with several games on the road and against quality teams, but it was still a very rough start.  Realistically, any hope of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament was gone after this opening stretch.

Of course, the Wildcats rebounded significantly after their opening 11 games.  Not only did they win their next four games following the 10 game losing streak, but they ended up winning 5 of the next 6 games including wins over NCAA Tournament teams Indiana and Iowa and a road game against Minnesota.  For a team that started 1-10 in Big Ten play and #134 on KenPom, this was a remarkable turnaround.  By the end of this run, they were 6-11 and had jumped all the way up to #106 on KenPom.  They weren't a great team, but they had really put a nice spin on what had started out as a really bad performance in Big Ten play.

So what changed?  How did a struggling Northwestern team suddenly "turn it around" in just a matter of weeks?  Well, the team certainly improved their play, but a big part of Northwestern's turnaround was due to a more manageable schedule.  Just take a look at how the opponents compared.
2014-15 Northwestern Opponents:
nu opponent strength
There's no doubt that there was a pretty significant drop in opponent difficulty from the 10 game losing streak into the next stretch of games.  If you just go in terms of the average KenPom rating, Northwestern went from playing a team like Stanford or Boise State to to a team like Minnesota or Syracuse.  Essentially, a drop down from a #2 seed in the NIT to a team that missed the NIT field entirely.  Those aren't worlds apart, but that's more than enough to make a difference in the outcome of at least a few games.

The other thing to note here outside of the opponent difficulty was that Northwestern had already been knocking on the door of winning some games during that 10 game losing streak.  Despite 10 losses, the Wildcats were highly competitive both at home and on the road and nearly knocked off a bunch of NCAA Tournament teams.  In fact, 60% of the losses in the 10 game losing streak came by 10 points or less including four games that were within a possession at the end of regulation.  If Northwestern could have simply closed out a few of those games, their RPI and general perception is significantly different heading into March.

Still, even though Northwestern had some bad luck early in Big Ten play and regrouped following that, when evaluating a team's performance, it's important to step back and evaluate fully.  All fans know that March is "money time," but games in January and February matter as well and the fact is that Northwestern struggled significantly in Big Ten play.  Again, the finish was remarkable, but part of the reason the run was so impressive was simply because Northwestern opened Big Ten play at 1-10 and was #134 on KenPom.  Most counted them out because Northwestern's had at lost a lot of games.  Along with this, even though Northwestern had some bad luck, they also got plenty of good fortune during their wins later in the year.  In fact, 83.3% of Northwestern's Big Ten wins last season came by 10 points or less.  This is the reason why Northwestern was #164 in KenPom's luck metric, which was good enough for the 4th luckiest Big Ten team last season.

The Wildcats dug themselves a massive hole early on in Big Ten play and though they dug themselves partially out, at the end of Big Ten play, they were still in a hole.  The team had shown promise and the ability to be competitive against good teams like Indiana and Iowa, but the talent issues were still evident and though there were some reasons to think the team underachieved in conference play, the Wildcats probably weren't far off from where they should have finished in the Big Ten.

4. Postseason Play

With Northwestern going 6-12 in Big Ten play, the Wildcats were locked out of an at-large NCAA Tournament bid and were considered a fringe candidate for the NIT.  For Northwestern to potentially get into the Big Dance or the NIT, they would have to reel off some wins in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.  Unfortunately, due to Northwestern's underwhelming Big Ten record, it would be an uphill battle from the #10 seed and require five straight wins to grab the Big Ten Tournament title.  Here is how things went for Northwestern:

Northwestern 2014-15 Postseason Play:
  • Loss (2nd Round Big Ten Tourney), Indiana, 71-56

Thanks to the Wildcats hot finish to the regular season and their win over Minnesota, Northwestern was able to move into the #10 seed and avoid a game on Wednesday.  Though some have argued that a 1st Round game in the Big Ten Tournament can be a boost in the right circumstances because it provides an opportunity for another win, for a team like Northwestern with fringe at-large NIT hopes, avoiding a 1st Round game is far more beneficial.  It means avoiding the potential for an upset and one fewer game toward a potential Big Ten Tournament title.  The honest truth is that beating a team like Rutgers wouldn't have done much for Northwestern's resume, so moving to the next game served the goals of the Wildcats much more effectively.

Entering the game, Indiana was given 67.6% odds to beat Northwestern according to KenPom.  The Hoosiers were considered to be solid favorites on paper, but Northwestern's upset over Indiana just a few weeks earlier had some experts second guessing whether the Hoosiers should be significant favorites. After all, Indiana had a three game losing streak heading into the Big Ten Tournament, including the loss to Northwestern and two more losses at home.  In short, Northwestern was hot and Indiana was fading.  Still, the Hoosiers needed a win for their bubble hopes and tensions would be high.

Following the opening tip-off, Indiana got out to a hot start and pulled out to a 24-6 lead less than 10 minutes into the game.  By that point, Northwestern's odds to win the game had reduced from roughly 33.3% to just 5%.  The Wildcats were a weaker team on paper and giving up an 18 point lead in 10 minutes was going to make an already unlikely win even more of an uphill battle.

Northwestern did hit some big buckets here and there and would get the lead down for spurts, but at halftime, Indiana led 36-22.  In the 2nd Half, the closest Northwestern got was a brief 11 point deficit before the Hoosiers piled on more thanks to James Blackmon, Jr. and Yogi Ferrell.  By time the game was over, the final score was 71-56.  Every game technically consists of 40 minutes, but in all reality, this one was decided in the first 10 minutes.  Indiana outplayed Northwestern in the final 30 minutes of the game as well, but the difference really wasn't that significant.  It was the first 10 minutes that led to the 15 point final margin.

Realistically, there were no at-large NCAA Tournament or NIT hopes following Northwestern's loss to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament.  After the Wildcats opted to decline the CBI, Northwestern officially ended its season at 15-17 overall and with a 6-12 record in the Big Ten.

5. Strengths

There's no doubt that Northwestern was not a great team last season, but they did have some areas where they showed significant progress in 2014-15.  The Wildcats showed quite a bit of progress on the offensive end and particularly, in the production outside the arc.  In the previous year, Northwestern struggled to have a productive offense, but the the Wildcats really trended up last season.

Northwestern's offense took a massive step forward in 2014-15.  After going through a very rough 2013-14 season that featured home losses to DePaul and Illinois State and a 14-19 overall record, fans were looking for progress in the next season.  The Wildcats finished with the #14 defense on KenPom in 2013-14, but their abysmal #309 offense cost them a lot of games.  No matter how the defense trended, improvement would be centered on how the offense would perform in 2014-15 and there's no doubt it got much better.

Northwestern Offensive Stats:

nwu off stazzz

None of those stats are all encompassing, but those are significant numbers and Northwestern took a big step forward in almost all of them.  To jump over 200 spots in KenPom offense alone is substantial.  The team with the #309 rated offense this season was 13-17 Cornell who finished at #205 in overall efficiency.  Even this year's Rutgers team was rated higher than #309 and the Scarlet Knights went 10-22 and lost their final 15 games of the season.  This was a substantial rise for Northwestern offensively.

Among the offensive improvement, the most most significant jump came in the form of 3PT production.  During the Bill Carmody years, Northwestern had started out as an abysmal 3PT shooting team and progressively became one of the better ones in the country.  During Carmody's first season, the Wildcats were #46th nationally in 3PT attempts while finishing at just #275 in 3PT percentage.  This was a team attempting a ton of shots outside the arc and connecting on very few of them.  The team moved a bit, but really remained a bad 3PT team for six seasons.  Then, in 2007-08, the team began a progression that peaked in 2011-12 where the team was #21 nationally in 3PT percentage and #3 nationally in percentage of team points from 3PT range.  Northwestern may not have been a great team under Carmody, but this was an area he really had the team producing.

When Carmody was let go and Chris Collins stepped in, nobody could be completely sure how the offense would look, especially given that this was his first head coaching stint.  In Collins' first season, the offense was a disaster.  It not only came in at #309 on KenPom, but also came in at a dreadful #319 in 3PT percentage despite being #53 in 3PT attempts.  Again, the team was back to shooting a bunch, but failing to convert.  Not a recipe for success.

However, despite it taking Carmody roughly six seasons to get Northwestern decent in this area, Collins got them there in just Year Two.  The Wildcats attempted fewer 3PT shots, but because they had jumped from #319 to #92 in 3PT percentage, the team became much more productive.  Just take a look at how they compared.

Northwestern 3PT Shooting Stats:

nw 3pt shooting

There were certainly other parts of the offense that took a step forward, but it's hard to single out any that may have been more significant than Northwestern's rise in 3PT offensive play.  The Wildcats were still not an elite team in this category, but just think about this.  Despite attempting 2.28 fewer 3PT shots per game than the prior season, the Wildcats actually made more 3PT buckets in 2014-15.  That's telling.

Despite not taking a huge step forward in wins, there's little doubt that Northwestern's offensive production last season was substantially ahead of the prior season.

6. Weaknesses

Despite taking substantial steps forward on offense, the Wildcats regressed significantly on defense.  Not enough to overcome their offensive gains, but from 2013-14 to 2014-15, Northwestern went from being a great defense to mediocre.  It remains one of the most concerning things about 2014-15 for Northwestern.

As previously mentioned, 2013-14 was not a great season for Northwestern.  They finished at 14-19 and failed to make the postseason.  On top of this, they lost 8 of their final 10 games including a loss to Penn State.  However, one area that was really strong for the Wildcats was on the defensive end.  Though part of their defensive efficiency was due to an extremely slow tempo (#341 nationally), a team doesn't get all the way up to #14 nationally in KenPom defense simply due to a slow tempo.  Simply put, it was a good defensive team and Northwestern returned most of it.

Unfortunately, that success did not continue into 2014-15.  Northwestern's defense was certainly not terrible, but it went from borderline elite during the 2013-14 season to mediocre in 2014-15.  Undoubtedly, the regression on the defensive end was arguably the thing that prevented Northwestern from taking a substantial step forward during the 2014-15 season.  The offense improved, the talent increased, and the bench got deeper, but the defense took a major step back.  Just look at how the numbers compared.

Northwestern Defensive Stats:

nw def statz

For a team that arguably improved its talent and depth during the offseason, that is a huge regression.  Northwestern lost their biggest contributor in Drew Crawford, but the Wildcats did return 5 of their Top 6 in minutes from 2013-14 with the sole exception of Crawford.  With those kind of returns and an exciting incoming recruiting class, one would have figured the defense would have been closer to its 2013-14 numbers, but ultimately, it regressed significantly.

One specific area of the defense that struggled significantly was the team's pressure on ball handlers.  This was actually one of the few areas where the 2013-14 Northwestern defense wasn't great either.  There was some regression, but both teams were pretty underwhelming at creating turnovers.  In 2014-15, Northwestern finished at #339 nationally in defensive turnover rate and #346 in steal rate.  Needless to say, not great.

Individually, creating turnovers was also an area where Northwestern struggled.  They had no standouts in this area and not a single Northwestern player finished in the Top 30 in the conference in steal rate.  Just take a look at how their Top 3 leaders in steal rate compared to the rest of the conference

Big Ten Steal Rate Stats:

b1g steal ratezzzz

* - Players had to play a minimum of 40% of minutes to quality.

Northwestern had its strengths in 2014-15, but its massive regression on the defensive side of the ball and its inability to create turnovers minimized what should have been a season that was a solid step forward for the program.

7. Top Player

One of the biggest questions for Northwestern coming into the 2014-15 season was whether a player would emerge to fill the large shoes of graduating senior Drew Crawford who dominated the individual statistical categories for Northwestern in 2013-14.  There were several players who could reasonably emerge both on the returning roster and in the incoming recruiting class.  Most figured no single player would completely make up for Crawford's contributions, but that one would emerge as the top contributor on the roster.

Let's take a look at the traditional stats.

Northwestern 2014-15 Stat Leaders
  • Minutes - Bryant McIntosh
  • Field Goal AttemptsTre Demps
  • Points - Tre Demps
  • Rebounds - Alex Olah
  • Assists - Bryant McIntosh
  • Blocks - Alex Olah
  • Steals - Vic Law

Here's how the advanced stats held up.

nw win shares

nw per

Of course, advanced numbers may not necessarily be a perfect reflection compared to how a player performs in big games and whether he can push them over the top.  To help assist in this, KenPom does an analysis of an MVP in each game and awards it to the best player on the winning team.  Here is how Northwestern stacked up.

nw kp mvp

The stats are pretty telling in this comparison.  Alex Olah may not have dominated the traditional stats, but he clearly was Northwestern's best player in total contributions and efficiency and had more "great" games than any other player on Northwestern's roster.  Olah was the guy that held it all together for the Wildcats last season and really, was one of the better players in the entire conference last season.

8. Sixth Man

The Wildcats had their strengths and weaknesses in 2014-15, but one area where they had underwhelming production was the bench.  Northwestern had several guys from the bench rotate into the starting lineup, but ultimately finished at #226 in bench minutes over the course of the season and considering that the team finished 6-12 overall, the Wildcats likely could have used more production there.

Last season, Northwestern's most started lineup was Tre Demps, Vic Law, Sanjay Lumpkin, Bryant McIntosh, and Alex Olah.  This leaves the biggest bench contributors as JerShon Cobb, Jeremiah Kreisberg, Scottie Lindsey, Gavin Skelly, Dave Sobolewski, and Nathan Taphorn.  The starters and bench comparison isn't perfect as several players off the bench started games, but this comparison looks at the guys outside the Top 5 in starts.  Here is how they broke down in traditional stats.

Northwestern 2014-15 Bench Leaders
  • Minutes - JerShon Cobb
  • Field Goal Attempts - Scottie Lindsey
  • Points - Scottie Lindsey
  • Rebounds - Scottie Lindsey
  • Assists - JerShon Cobb
  • Steals - Scottie Lindsey

It's also a really tight battle in the advanced stats comparison.

nu ws bench

nu bench per

Normally in analyzing each team's bench contributions, we only touch on the traditional stats, win shares, and PER, but considering the closeness of this comparison, we will also look at the usage of these players.

nw bench useage

When you look at the culmination of all of these different stats, it's really hard to separate Scottie Lindsey and Nathan Taphorn.  However, considering that Lindsey averaged roughly 4 minutes per game more than Taphorn, the edge probably should go to Lindsey here.  Still, the margin is very thin and both players provided a nice boost for the Wildcats off the bench.

9. Top Storylines

The storyline for Northwestern's 2014-15 was one of a program blossoming with potential.  In the win column, the Wildcats were an underwhelming team, but their remarkable progress on offense and their young roster (#304 in experience) is telling about the growth of the program.

Before the season began, most expected 2014-15 to be a transitional one for the program.  Key contributor Drew Crawford exited while new high profile recruits arrived on campus.  The team wasn't expected to be able to convert on that potential just yet, but was expected to start to show the signs of going forward.

Northwestern largely met expectations.  The Wildcats were not a great team and were underwhelming during non-conference play and to open Big Ten play, but they played well down the stretch and showed the ability to be competitive with the majority of the conference.  Northwestern lost 12 games in Big Ten play, but the signs were there of a team that could be really solid in the future.

Transitions during the offseason never go as perfectly as many hope, but there's no doubt that the storyline around Northwestern's 2014-15 season was one of a team that showed potential, but was unable to live up to it consistently enough to put together a good enough resume to make the postseason.

collinz

10. Final Verdict

On paper, Northwestern's season is a difficult one to place.  The vast majority of experts didn't give the Wildcats much credit before the season and picked them to finish near the bottom of the conference.  Northwestern was able to finish at #10 in the final Big Ten standings, but for the most part, the team didn't finish very well.

Still, the emergence of several young contributors, the bright finish to the season, and the upset of several quality Big Ten teams late in the year makes it hard to criticize Northwestern's underwhelming 15-17 record too harshly.  There were a lot of things to be excited about for the Wildcats in 2014-15, even though they didn't meet their apparent season goals.  These positives should bear at least some weight in the final calculation.

The Wildcats were not a great team in 2014-15.  They lost 12 games in Big Ten play and in reality, really didn't lose simply due to bad luck.  This was a team that made some progress, but most of its potential should be for 2015-16 and not for the the 2014-15 season.  As such, Northwestern doesn't deserve a harsh grade for their 2014-15 season, but it's hard to grade it as anything close to a successful season simply given their 6-12 record in conference play.

Season Grade: C-