Monday, February 3, 2014

Northwestern is the 4th Best Team in The Big Ten…No, Really!

At this moment Northwestern is in 4th place in the Big Ten. I know the Wildcats probably aren’t the fourth best team in the conference based on talent, but the reality is they’ve played 10 conference games (more than any other team to this point) and they’re sitting in fourth place against the league’s toughest schedule. In contrast Wisconsin below NU and has played the second easiest. The Wildcats run up the Big Ten standings started with a 49-43 win over Illinois in early January which started them on a 5-2 stretch which has evened their Big Ten record at 5-5 and placed them ahead of Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana, and Illinois in the standings just to name a few. It’s been a remarkable run led by first year Head Coach Chris Collins’s great coaching job and senior captain Drew Crawford becoming a true team leader starting in the ‘Cats win over Purdue and continuing with two remarkable efforts in road upsets at Wisconsin and Minnesota.

You can search through stats and strategy to better understand why the Wildcats have seemingly magically transformed. But I think the real explanation has a lot to do with a change in attitude which occurred after the loss to Iowa. A lot of the focus has justifiably been on the ‘Cats defensive change. The decision to pack the defense in the lane to keep opponents on the perimeter, close hard on three point shooters, and force their opponents to take poor shots has kept the Wildcats hang close with more powerful offenses. The Wildcats have also been assisted by their decision to slow down the game and not try to get into a run and gun game with more powerful Big Ten teams. Limiting possessions helps a team like Northwestern which might not shoot lights out but can play defense. It makes each possession critical and if the other team struggles shooting the ball the Wildcats can take advantage of that poor shooting and win with a couple clutch shots (more than likely from Tre Demps).

Still, as I noted above, the best change in the team has been in attitude. This was a team which looked beaten before the ball was tipped a month ago. Now, they seem confident they can compete with anyone anywhere. That attitude won’t always result in wins, but it’ll at least mean the team won’t get overly discouraged when they suffer the inevitable tough losses which are bound to occur. The event that I believe really made the new attitude work was the way Chris Collins handled Drew Crawford in the Purdue game. In the past Drew was a player who was either very good if he got hot early or kind of disappeared if things didn’t go well early. In the Purdue game things didn’t go well for Crawford early, but Collins didn’t let the team stop giving him the ball. Instead, he kept setting up plays to give Crawford shots. Even when Crawford kept missing and even when he admitted he was discouraged Collins kept calling his plays. Eventually, Crawford made the shot which put the ‘Cats up for good and made the defensive play to win the game. I really believe it was Collins showing confidence in his captain that helped the rest of the team start to have confidence as well. When Tre Demps declares Collins “has his back” more than any coach he’s ever been around it says a lot. This is a team that trusts each other and their coaching staff. I think that’s why not only have we seen more success from Crawford, but we’ve seen Demps, JerShon Cobb, Kale Abrahamson, Nikola Cerina, and Alex Olah step up as well. Will everything go perfect from now on? I doubt it but if the team continues to follow their game plan and trust each other I think the success which has occurred over the past seven games will continue to occur more often than not.  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Looking Ahead for Northwestern Basketball

The big story from Northwestern today is the effort to unionize from the football team led by Kain Colter. However, Northwestern will play two basketball games this week and following tough loss to Iowa on Saturday the Wildcats face even more tough competition this week as they battle Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The fact of the matter is until Northwestern starts to make more shots playing teams in the top half of the Big Ten will be very difficult. Playing great defense may keep games close, but when you play a team with more firepower that team eventually overpowers you. Part of the problem for Northwestern comes from players who are underachieving based on their career stats. Dave Sobolewski is shooting nearly 20% below his best career numbers in terms of three point percentage. Drew Crawford is 11% below his career high. Those are your two team captains and guys who two years ago could at least be relied on to hit a wide open three. I just want to be clear, I don’t really care if a guy misses a tough contested shot, but I can’t stand to see college basketball players who lay bricks when there isn’t a defender within five feet of them. That shouldn’t happen. JerShon Cobb is another poor shooter who right now is shooting just 30% from three point range, but to be fair that’s in line with his career numbers. I would just have hoped he might have improved with a year off to work on his game.

When NU faces a Wisconsin team that shoots 38% from three point range as a team it’ll be very hard for them to hang with the Badgers unless something remarkable happens. Even NU’s great defense will likely meet its match given NU’s limited depth. That’s what happened against Iowa. For 30 minutes NU at least hung with the Hawkeyes but playing only a seven man rotation the Wildcats couldn’t hang with the Hawkeyes 11 man rotation.

Minnesota is another deep and athletic team that will challenge Northwestern. It’ll be an interesting matchup, though, because Minnesota is not a good defensive team at all. There is a theory that good defense will beat good offense and that’ll be put to the test on Saturday as Northwestern has good defense but doesn’t have good offense. Of course, the issue of NU’s limited depth may play a role as well. I’d like to see NU try to get more minutes from Sobolewksi, Nate Taphorn, and James Montgomery III as they travel to Madison and Minneapolis. Taphorn offers more potential offense from behind the three point line than any other Wildcat and Montgomery would fit well into NU’s blue-collar defensive approach. As for Sobolewski, if he could play like he did as a freshman he’d offer NU another outside shooter and a guy who is by far the team’s best ball handler. Obviously these are tough games and the Big Ten is a tough league and using a little more depth might help NU hang with tough squads as the season continues. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Why I’ve Bought into Chris Collins and #NUEra of NU Basketball

Usually accomplishing something nobody else has done is a pretty difficult task. That’s the reason why nobody has accomplished it. For Chris Collins to take over Northwestern’s basketball program and take the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament seems a nearly impossible task, but somehow it seems somewhat less impossible than it did two weeks ago. Still, Northwestern has had decent seasons in basketball before most recently under Bill Carmody but also under Rich Falk, Ricky Byrdsong, and Kevin O’Neil. So the question becomes can Collins move Northwestern from the ceiling of a respectable season (which ends in the NIT) to a great season which ends in the NCAA Tournament? I’m starting to think the answer is yes.

I’ll admit I was uncertain when it became clear Chris Collins was the target of Northwestern AD Jim Phillips in his search for Bill Carmody’s replacement. Sure, I was aware of the fact Collins worked for Coach K at Duke and his father’s NBA career and his USA basketball credentials, but I worried because there hadn’t been a coach in nearly two decades hired to be a head coach in the Big Ten without previous college head coaching experience. Two decades! And Phillips was giving Collins the most difficult job in the conference. I mean sure someone with no head coaching experience might succeed at Michigan State, but Northwestern?!?!?! It seemed almost unfair to Collins no matter how much experience he had as an assistant or what coaching resources he could call upon. I was nervous.

I became less nervous when I watched the press conference in which Phillips introduced Collins. Sure, the job still seemed nearly impossible and I wondered if Chris Collins really knew the challenge he was getting himself into but I liked the way he approached the presser. You could tell he was genuinely excited for the job and that this was a moment he’d waited for since his first days as an assistant coach and maybe since he’d left college. Given that excitement it made me think he’d probably be able to connect that excited to some decent recruits and maybe we’d see a talent uptick at Northwestern in the long term. It certainly sounded like he would put together a good coaching staff to help him recruit and mold talent when he added former NU star Patrick Baldwin and his father’s former NBA assistant Brian James (and later local product Armon Gates). But no matter how good those guys were going to be at recruiting they still would be tested as coaches because they’d likely never land top-50 products at Northwestern. To their credit they’ve come close with top-70 product Vic Law, but it still looks like Northwestern will be a roster of mostly three-star recruits with an occasional four-star and several two-stars to fill out the lineup. That would be a fine lineup in the MAC but can it win in the Big Ten? Yeah, if the team is well coached.

In the end it was coaching (even when the Wildcats weren’t winning) that led me to believe Chris Collins and his staff will accomplish the impossible—though it might take a couple years (but I hope it happens in two months). When Northwestern struggled to a 7-6 non-conference record and then started the Big Ten 0-3 people pointed to those numbers and some less than stellar statistics and panic seemed to grip the Northwestern fan base. I think even Jim Phillips might have been stricken with panic as he watched DePaul finish off the ‘Cats in the games final seconds thinking that there was no way Bill Carmody would have lost that game.

As I watched the ‘Cats struggle, though, I noticed something was becoming very clear. The team was well-coached. Sure, the offensive PPP stat was brutal, but it was brutal because the players missed a ton of open shots. If Collins himself, or Baldwin, or Gates were shooting those shots they’d have probably been baskets, but Dave Sobolewski and his 17% three-point percentage was making his coach look pretty bad. That’s not to pick on Dave. Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb, and a collection of other Wildcats have games where they miss open shots with great frequency but the fact of the matter is the shots were there and that was the result of good coaching. Something still seemed to missing (well, wins for one) but I was becoming convinced Collins was on to something with the way he was running the team.  

It took a pretty disastrous and embarrassing loss to Iowa to figure out what exactly was that missing link. The problem was defense. Sure, the Wildcats missed open shots a lot, but they got enough they could win if they could just start stopping their opponents at a greater frequency. So Collins, Baldwin, James, and Gates developed a new strategy. They told their team to be blue-collar. To play as hard as they could on defense and keep up that intensity for 40, 45, or 50 minutes. As it turned out the change worked brilliantly. The Wildcats defeated Illinois, the played close with Big Ten leaderMichigan State, they beat Indiana, and they beat Purdue in an amazing double-OT thriller. They’ll now get another chance at Iowa and Wisconsin and they might fail to win both of those contests, but with the intensity they’re playing with now I know NU won’t be out of the fight the way they were in that disastrous loss to the Hawkeyes a couple weeks back. 

The decision to change the team’s approach and get the players to buy in is a sign of good coaching. Not only in altering the game plan, but in getting the team to buy into that change. I have to think it was Collins’s personality which the players seem to love that made Jim Phillips decide to take a chance on a guy with no head coaching experience when many (myself included) didn’t think it was worth such a risk. Some will criticize and say the coaches should have realized NU needed a blue-collar approach sooner and maybe the reason for the delay in the change is Collins hadn’t had previous head coaching experience. At first he probably was coaching NU like Duke because that’s what he was used to seeing and coaching as an assistant these past 13 years. But the fact he changed and realized what he needed to do in order to win actually says more to me about his ability to coach than if he’d been winning from the start. Good coaches need to be able to put ego and stubbornness aside and admit they’re wrong and make adjust if things aren’t going well. I was a fan of Bill Carmody’s era at Northwestern, but I got the impression he wasn’t very willing to change. The Princeton Offense and the zone defense he ran remained the same for many years. Maybe that was part of the reason why NU often defeated talented non-conference opponents under Carmody but often leveled out during Big Ten playy facing opponents who saw the same game plan year after year.

Regardless, the fact that Collins changed and got his players to accept the change so easily gives me great confidence in the future of Northwestern basketball. This year’s team likely won’t be going to the NCAA Tournament (it might even be smart to focus on a CBI-bid instead of the NIT) but with the same level of hard working players and the willingness of coaches to adjust to put those players in the best position to win, I don’t think NCAA-bid is that far off. In fact, I think it’s probably even closer than we think.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Wildcats Have Momentum Heading into Game with Purdue

Early on this year, really up until a week ago I didn't think Northwestern would have any momentum this season. It just didn't seem like this team would be able to put together enough consecutive success to establish that positive feeling. That changed in the last week. Northwestern went 2-1 in the week, but the only loss was to a top-5 team in Michigan State. Northwestern best #23 Illinois and defending Big Ten champ Indiana in the games that surrounded the loss to MSU. Even in that loss the Cats played great defense and showed their new style of play which focuses on defense will allow them to compete with the conference's best teams. The Wildcats still don't score the ball real well, but fans had to be impressed with the returned assertiveness of Drew Crawford who got to the basketball for a bunch of inside points vs Indiana and the clutch shooting of Tre Demps who really closed the door on comeback hopes for both Illinois and Indiana in the final minutes.

Now Northwestern will face a Purdue team who comes into the game with similar positive momentum. The Boilermakers have defeated Illinois and Penn State in the last week and like NU have quieted some of their doubters with their solid play. AJ Hammons leads the Boilermakers from his center position. He's a legit big man and his matchup with NU's Alex Olah is one to watch for sure. Purdue also has a collection of guards who will try to drive and get to the hoop. Northwestern played amazing defense in preventing Indiana's Yogi Farrell from getting to the basket regularly. A similar defensive effort will got a long way to helping NU win the game. The other thing NU needs is offensive production. The Wildcats got double-figure points from both Demps and Crawford in the wins over Illinois and Indiana. That's necessary for NU to have a chance. Also watch Olah and Kale Abrahamson who have had solid scoring games of late. Finally, I've been very impressed with the way JerShon Cobb has taken over the point guard position from the injured Dave Sobolewski. He will be tested by Purdue's defense but if he passes the test it'll be huge for Northwestern's odds of winning.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Win Over Illinois is Big for NU

Northwestern’s win over Illinois gives them bragging rights which is nice, but perhaps more important it gives the team and its fans so hope for the future. I’ve got confidence in what Chris Collins is trying to do, but as I wrote about last weekend it seemed NU just couldn’t catch a break. NU still hasn’t had multiple players really shoot well at one time, but they did catch a break in terms of Illinois having a very off day shooting the ball. As a result the ‘Cats pulled out a hard fought 49-43 victory over the #23 team in the nation.

While Illinois did have an off day shooting you have to give some credit to Northwestern for that result. I honestly felt this was one of the most hard-working defensive efforts I’d seen from NU in a long time. I was particularly impressed with how NU’s perimeter players fought over the top of screens (something they struggled with earlier in the year) and how Alex Olah helped when needed. If NU gets similar efforts in the future they’ll continue to compete. They might need more offensive production than they got last night, though, Tre Demps run of three straight threes was about as clutch as you can get, it’ll take more than 49 points to win most Big Ten games. At least I think it will, but I’d fine if NU could hold down opponents and win 39-33. The end result is the team wants to get W’s and it doesn’t matter how those occur.

Aside from Demps and his clutch play, you have to respect the efforts of JerShon Cobb who stepped into the role of starting point guard and really seemed to ignite the NU offense from that spot. I like Cobb’s ability to score off the dribble and as he plays more and more I expect to see him generate even more offense. I’m still waiting for a huge game from Drew Crawford, but his 13 points did lead the team and he also tied for the team lead with eight rebounds. Crawford needs to make sure his feet are set when he shoots threes and not fade-away on some many shots, but at least he showed some signs of his old shooting touch on Sunday night. Hopefully he’ll completely regain that touch as NU takes on tough matchups with Michigan State and Indiana this week. 

The other area NU needs to improve in before this week's games is free throw shooting. At least Crawford made the clutch free throws at the end of the game, but overall the team did not shoot free throws well. Making free throws seems at times to be a skill which isn't nearly as common as it was in years past, but if you're a team that is an underdog in nearly every game you need to get any points you can free throws are by their name "free" points. I'll be looking and hoping the 'Cats are cashing in from the line in other close games this season. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Northwestern Needs to Find Some Consistency

A lot of people say Northwestern doesn’t have good basketball players. Maybe that is true, but at various times Northwestern’s “bad” players have been pretty good. The problem is that they lack any sort of consistency in terms of when they play well. Even worse they don’t seem to play well at the same time. For example, Tre Demps scored 23 points in NU’s loss to DePaul. In that game he consistently hit three point shots. Today, he couldn’t hit multiple open three early in the game. Those threes were created because Drew Crawford was having a good half and he ended up scoring 13 first half points. If Demps has hit his open threes in the first half Northwestern could very well have established an early lead and changed the whole course of the game. It might even have created open looks for a third Wildcat player.

Alex Olah is another example of inconsistency. Olah posted a career high 22 points against Wisconsin a game after he scored zero (0) versus DePaul. If Olah had only scored half of what he scored versus Wisconsin versus DePaul NU would have won that game easily.

JerShon Cobb is another player who has had big games in the past, but who doesn’t seem to have his big games when other players play well. If Cobb could have posted a double-figure game versus Wisconsin to support Olah then perhaps NU could have hung around in that game but he did not play well.

Dave Sobolewski scored a career high 25 points against UIC early in this season. He hasn’t come close to that since. If Sobo could have exceeded 20 points in any number of games since then NU might have come away with a victory, but he hasn’t so NU has lost several games where they needed production from the point guard position.

I’m hesitant even to bring up Drew Crawford as we’ve discussed for years his inconsistent play. Crawford has never been a consistent player and that lack of consistency has been magnified this year as he’s supposed to be NU’s best offensive weapon, but has struggled to ever reach the 20-point mark. Part of that is because teams focus defense on him but part of it is that Crawford tends to disappear in the offense. Still, if Crawford could consistently get some support from his teammates he might be able to lead NU to some victories before the season ends. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Back on Winning Track at Home

I don't really know what to say about this game. Northwestern clearly still hasn't found any sort of rhythm on offense but at least they found a way to play good defense. I liked the fact Coach Collins changed up the starting lineup and that seemed to ignite a fire in some of the Wildcats. At least Alex Olah responded to his benching with some intensity. He scored early and actually looked pretty good on the glass vs 6-11 opponent which really impressed me.

Dave Sobolewski still doesn't seem to have put things together. He was also pulled from the starting lineup, but actually played a lot. Unfortunately, not much of his play was particularly good. He still seems very uncomfortable in the new offense and simply can't seem to hit a three. I can't figure it out because he's clearly a guy who has worked on shooting his whole life, but the ball just doesn't go in when he shoots at this point.

I did like the play of JerShon Cobb at the point guard position. He's also a great free throw shooter and needs to be more aggressive going to the basket in an effort to draw fouls and get to the line. I'm still waiting for a truly big game from Drew Crawford. Probably not getting two early fouls every game would help with that. Maybe Collins shouldn't automatically sit Drew when he picks up a foul, though, I'd say Drew as a 5th year senior needs to be smarter defensively and pickup so many fouls.