Northwestern Men’s Basketball put up a tough fight against Michigan in the second round of the Big Ten tournament, but fell just short. With the loss, the Wildcats’ hopes of making the NIT were dashed, and with the team announcing that the ‘Cats won’t be participating in a postseason tournament, Northwestern’s season is over. So let’s take a look at the numbers behind Northwestern’s Big Ten Tournament loss and the season as a whole.
Big Ten Tournament
In what ended up being his final game as a Northwestern Wildcat, Alex Olah stepped up big time by notching a double-double, scoring 20 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. In the second half, Olah had 16 points, shooting 7 of 11 from the field, including a clutch three to bring Northwestern within one, and of course his dramatic putback that sent the game into overtime. Olah was also +9 on the floor, the second best Wildcat in terms of plus/minus. In what was a rough season for the senior center, Olah came up huge once again against the Wolverines. He delivered in crunch time, scoring eight of the ‘Cats’ final 11 points in regulation.
Nathan Taphorn didn’t play much down the stretch of the regular season, but in the Big Ten Tournament against Michigan, Taphorn played 19 minutes, with six points and five rebounds on 1-5 shooting. Taphorn also had the final shot of overtime, which fell just short as Northwestern couldn’t pull off the upset. But Taphorn also had a -5 plus/minus while Aaron Falzon, who didn’t play as much, had a +14 plus/minus despite not making a field goal. Taphorn doesn’t match up better size-wise with Michigan, but still it was interesting to see him playing important minutes for the Wildcats after falling out of the rotation late in conference play. In Indianapolis, however, Chris Collins liked what he saw from the junior and decided to ride the hot hand.
In what was a very even matchup for much of the afternoon, the one area where Northwestern excelled against Michigan was in the paint. Northwestern dominated the Wolverines inside, outscoring them by 14 in the lane. Northwestern matches up pretty well against Michigan’s bigs, as Olah’s seven-foot frame has an edge over Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal, who stand at just 6’9’’. The ‘Cats were especially able to take advantage of this matchup in the second half, as Olah had 16 points and the ‘Cats outrebounding the Wolverines 24-12 in the second half, including 6 offensive boards. But it still wasn’t enough, as Northwestern’s postseason hopes were dashed with Zak Irvin’s late jumper.
It’s difficult to define the entire men’s basketball season without mentioning this one. Northwestern’s soft non-conference schedule helped the team go 12-1 before starting Big Ten play and earn a program-record 20 regular season victories. But the schedule was exceptionally weak, and was the biggest reason why Northwestern’s solid season wasn’t awarded with an NCAA Tournament or NIT bid. Northwestern’s non-conference opponents averaged an RPI of 227 (that drops to 246 if you take the neutral site North Carolina game out of the equation), and the schedule was ranked as the 345th-weakest in the country by KenPom. That means that only six other schools in the country–and none in a major conference–scheduled worse non-conference opponents. Northwestern avoided a major upset and handled business against bad teams, but it didn’t give itself enough of a challenge in the early weeks of the season. That inevitably cost them in March.
Despite Alex Olah’s presence and good play inside after returning from injury, Northwestern’s offense in 2015-16 was defined by the three point shot. The Wildcats got 36.2 percent of their season’s points from three-pointers, which is 30th-most in the country and behind only Michigan in the Big Ten. The team wasn’t lights-out shooting the ball from deep (127th in the nation at 35.8 percent), but the ‘Cats fired 776 three-pointers over the course of the season, again behind only the Wolverines in the Big Ten. Another indicator of Northwestern’s reliance on the perimeter is its points distribution with regards to free throws; only 15.3 percent of the Wildcats’ points came from the foul line this season, which is 344th in the nation (only seven schools were worse). This unbalanced offensive strategy worked for much of non-conference play and when the ‘Cats played teams like Rutgers, but when conference teams with better perimeter defenses limited Northwestern’s open looks from deep, the offense struggled. It was a mixture of player personnel and game-planning, but Northwestern was either unwilling or unable to attack the basket more often this season, which may have helped the ‘Cats in the long run.
On a positive note, Northwestern’s ball movement on offense was noticeably better this season than it was in previous years. The team assisted on 63 percent of its field goals, the 14th-best figure in the nation. The team also had a 1.59 assist-to-turnover ratio, which was fifth-best in the country. Most of the credit for these sparkling numbers goes to Bryant McIntosh. The sophomore may have dropped off a bit late in the season, but McIntosh had a fantastic game in the Big Ten Tournament and a very solid season overall as Northwestern’s starting point guard and primary ball-handler. His 213 assists in 2015-16 were the most any Northwestern player has had in any season, and he also added some scoring to his game. McIntosh improved his three-point shooting and ability to drive to the basket and it showed statistically; McIntosh scored 13.8 points per game over the season, behind only Tre Demps on the team in scoring. The Wildcats’ offense wasn’t always a work of art, but McIntosh’s contributions were integral for the team’s success. Northwestern has a star at point guard, and there’s no doubt that Chris Collins will continue to rely heavily on McIntosh going forward.