Defense is the Key For the Unpredictable Northwestern WildcatsPosted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on February 5th, 2014
Going into conference play, the Big Ten was once again touted as the premiere league in the country. With pundits citing its exceptional depth as proof of elite status, we often heard the clichéd phrase “in any given game…,” which has turned out to ring true halfway through league play. But Northwestern was never in those conversations, as the Wildcats (along with Nebraska) were projected as the league’s doormat based upon their weak performance in the non-conference schedule. Things looked to be heading that way when Chris Collins’ team lost its first four conference games by an average of 19.3 points. Now, after having won five of their last seven and four of their last five contests, the Wildcats find themselves in a very strange position — tied for fourth place at 5-5 in the Big Ten.
The one constant with Northwestern is that the Wildcats have been terribly inconsistent throughout the season, even during their current winning ways. For example, while they have a defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in efficiency (giving up 0.92 points per possession), they also have experienced games where their defense completely collapses (as evidenced by four games where the Wildcats gave up more than 1.20 points per possession). Also perplexing is the fact that Northwestern appears to have turned its season around as soon as Collins lost the services of the injured David Sobolewski, a player who averaged more than 85 percent of available minutes the last two seasons. So what’s changed over the last couple of weeks to cause the turnaround? The answer seems to lie in the team’s elite defense, despite some of those marked inconsistencies.
Northwestern’s defense has already stifled some of the Big Ten’s best offenses. That the defense is so good is borne out of necessity due to their atrocious offense, as the Wildcats rank among the bottom 50 teams nationally in a number of key offensive categories (effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, offensive efficiency). It’s hard to generate an offense uglier than theirs, but the flip side is to look no further than what Northwestern’s opponents are doing against them –the Wildcats rank among the top 75 in those same categories on the defensive end, all the while holding teams to a superb 0.92 points per possession. It’s been even better over the past three weeks. In four of the Wildcats’ last seven games, they have held Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin to fewer than 0.80 points per possession. By way of appropriate context, Michigan State’s typically stellar defense has only held three teams to that level of offensive ineptitude this season, and all of those performances were made against low-major teams.
It would be a fool’s errand for anyone to predict what to expect from Northwestern in the second half of the Big Ten season. First-year head coach Collins has the team believing in itself for the first time in seemingly decades, and confidence can often mean the difference between winning and losing close games. Last weekend the Wildcats’ defense against Minnesota was not outstanding (1.00 PPP), but the offense managed to somehow come alive just enough to get past Minnesota by a single point. Even considering the great defensive performances, the numbers don’t tell the whole story of these renewed Wildcats. So I’ll rely on the cliché: they’ve simply found ways to win. Sometimes it’s just better to enjoy the ride rather than try to explain it.