It’s early in the season and conference play is looming, but so far, so good for Northwestern men’s basketball. The Wildcats scored a season-high 103 points in Monday’s win over Sacred Heart and improved to 11-1 on the season, the program’s best mark through 12 games since 1982-83. The fast start hasn’t always been pretty (the team’s best three wins were sluggish overtime victories over Columbia, Virginia Tech and DePaul), but Northwestern has taken care of business so far against a soft non-conference schedule. With only one game remaining before Big Ten play begins, let’s take a look at some of the numbers behind the first 12 games of Northwestern’s men’s basketball season.
Surprisingly, Northwestern has been in a position to win so many games thanks to a consistent, productive offense. The ‘Cats are now averaging a touch over 80 points per contest, a far cry from the 65 points per game that they averaged through last season’s first 12 games. In fact, Northwestern has yet to score less than 67 points in a game this season. Even in games where the ‘Cats eked out an ugly victory in the final minutes or during the team’s late swoon in the loss to North Carolina, the offense hasn’t generally been the problem. Whether it be the development of players like Alex Olah, Tre Demps and Bryant McIntosh or a greater sense of comfort in Chris Collins’ offensive system, Northwestern has been able to put points on the board early and often in non-conference play.
One reason for Northwestern’s offensive success has been its three point shooting. The ‘Cats averaged over 10 made three-point field goals a game through the first 12 games, one of the top figures in the country and behind only Michigan and Indiana in the Big Ten. Northwestern is a middle-of-the-road team nationally in terms of three-point shooting percentage (38.4 percent), but is successful because of the volume of three pointers the Wildcats take; the ‘Cats have made 122 shots (on a conference-most 318 attempts) from downtown thus far, tied with Michigan for second in the Big Ten and only one behind Indiana for the league lead. With an injured Vic Law, a solid but inconsistent Olah and an array of talented shooters on the roster, Northwestern seems to content to ride or die with the three-point shot on offense this season. So far, that strategy has worked just fine and could put NU in a position to upset an elite Big Ten team if their shots are falling.
The Wildcats’ success on offense is certainly aided by the team’s astounding 1.88 assist-to-turnover ratio. Northwestern was already in the top five nationally in that category before the Sacred Heart game, and that placement should only go up after 30 assists and only 10 turnovers on Monday. The team has also assisted on nearly 69 percent of its field goals, with NU’s 235 total assists on the season trailing only Michigan State’s 271 in the Big Ten. McIntosh certainly has a lot to do with this success, leading the team in assists and establishing himself as a reliable primary ball-handler. Northwestern also seems to be a good passing team as a whole, however, often using effective perimeter ball movement to find open shooters. It should be noted that these sparkling numbers are also aided by the Wildcats’ ability to find Olah in the paint against smaller, overmatched defenders which leads to many easy field goals. If Northwestern can even come close to this efficiency during conference play, however, the ‘Cats should be able to find similar offensive success, even against more physical defenses.
Three-point shooting may be the offensive identity for the Wildcats this season, but that doesn’t mean that Alex Olah isn’t integral to the team’s success. Through 12 games, Olah is averaging 12.8 points per game–a modest increase from his 11.7 average last season– to go along with 6.5 boards per game. As was the case in previous seasons, Olah has been up and down at times against inferior competition while playing significant minutes in every game, and may be tested further with an injury to backup center Joey van Zegeren. That being said, Olah is averaging 17 points and 6.6 rebounds a game over the past five games, using his size advantage to score at the basket seemingly at will. Olah’s major talent advantage will shrink in conference play against bigger, stronger opposing centers, but he needs to ride this hot streak for as long as possible in order to make up for van Zegeren’s absence and provide better spacing for the Wildcats’ shooters.
At 11-1, there isn’t a glaring problem for this team. An area of possible concern for Northwestern, however, may be its +3.6 rebounding margin. That figure isn’t necessarily dreadful, putting the ‘Cats at seventh in the Big Ten and 116th nationally before Monday’s game. Yet with a seven-foot senior captain in Alex Olah and a non-conference schedule filled with smaller and less athletic lineups, that number should be better. Part of Northwestern’s occasional rebounding struggles comes from the team’s use of zone defense, which naturally leads to more offensive rebounds. But with the ‘Cats dead last in the Big Ten in steals (4.0 per game), NU will need to be better rebounding opponents’ misses and limiting second chances in conference play.
After news of Vic Law’s season-ending shoulder injury, it seemed uncertain exactly how well Northwestern would be able to replace his offensive production. Albeit playing against much inferior opponents more often than not, Northwestern’s depth seems to be holding up relatively well in Law’s absence, as the combination of Sanjay Lumpkin, Aaron Falzon, Scottie Lindsey and Nathan Taphorn (players whose roles have increased after the injury) is averaging 35.2 points per game. Olah, Demps and McIntosh are undoubtedly the team’s offensive leaders, but if this second tier of players maintains this level of production, the ‘Cats would benefit enormously in conference play. Falzon and Lindsey are both shooters who have had ups and downs this year, and Collins has flipped the two as starters to try to ride the hot hand. Lumpkin, while still not a scoring threat, is no longer an offensive liability and Taphorn has made great strides since his freshman year by now adding an ability to score inside to his game. If two or three of these four are hot on any given night, the ‘Cats don’t have to rely as heavily on the scoring of their top three. Northwestern’s depth is better now than it’s been in a long time, and that becomes a major factor as the minutes wear on the players down the stretch of the season.