Looking Back and Ahead: What to Make of MBB

By Eric Rynston-Lobel

Over two months ago, I did something I don’t ordinarily do: write a story based more on anger and frustration than logic and reason.

After Northwestern Men’s Basketball opened its season with an inexcusable 71-61 loss at home to Merrimack, a program in its first season playing Division I basketball, I along with most other Wildcats’ fans were tired of it. Tired of the promise that has surrounded each team since the program’s historic run to the NCAA Tournament in 2017 evaporating year after year. Tired of the agony of consistently losing close games. Tired of watching teams with loads of talent fail to even come close to meeting exepectations.

In November, I wrote:

“Sure, it’s one game, and it’s hard to draw accurate conclusions to extrapolate onto an entire season. That doesn’t matter. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

And this right now is nearing insanity.”

Now that there’s a larger sample to work with, I want to look back at how the 2019-20 season has progressed, and double down on the concerns I vented in that story.

We thought it couldn’t get worse than losing at home to Merrimack by double digits, but then Radford came to Welsh-Ryan and won by 11. After that, it seemed Chris Collins’ team had figured out how to win: most notably in its defeat of Bradley at the Fort Myers’ Invitational 78-51 and a 72-54 win against SIU-Edwardsville, the kinds of results we should’ve seen from the ‘Cats against Merrimack and Radford.

Then came the most promising moment in my opinion: a 77-72 loss at home to Michigan State, a team that entered the game as 12-point road favorites. First-year Boo Buie outscored Cassius Winston 26-21, and the offense came alive in the second half with 45 points. Sure, the game still ended in a loss, but the fact that the team pushed the Spartans to their limit, was a point of optimism. Since then, it’s all gone wrong.

At the time, Northwestern’s 83-76 loss at DePaul four days after the Michigan State loss didn’t seem so bad. DePaul entered the matchup 11-1, receiving votes in the AP Top 25, and once again, the ‘Cats hung with a good team. In fact, they led 72-71 with just over three minutes remaining. But late-game struggles again plagued NU. I was willing to write it off as a “good loss” at the time.

Then that anger and frustration that hit me after the Merrimack game returned after Northwestern lost to Hartford, an unfathomably horrible loss for the program. For some perspective, Hartford was 319th out of 353 in KenPom. Northwestern was 108th. The ‘Cats were also 16.5-point favorites. Needless to say, any hope generated from playing No. 15 Michigan State and 11-1 DePaul close disappeared as soon as Hartford’s Hunter Marks’ jump shot rattled in as time expired to secure the 67-66 win for the Hawks.

Since then, it’s hasn’t gotten any better. The Wildcats are 1-3 since that loss, and the most agonizing was surely the one at Assembly Hall. With 12 minutes left in the game, Northwestern led 50-40. Its win probability was .844, and they lost. Since the start of the 2017-18 season over which the program has a 36-46 record, these types of games have become all too common. Of those 46 losses, 16 of them have come with NU leading by 14 or less, tied or trailing by no more than two points with less than five minutes left in a game.

Is that bad? Well let’s look at it this way. Since 2017-18, the ‘Cats have been in 31 games total in which they either lead by 14 or less, were tied or trailed by two or less with less than five minutes left. They were 15-16 in those games. I calculated the win probabilities in each of those 31 games and found the average to be .743. In other words, Northwestern should’ve won roughly 23 of those 31 games over the last two plus seasons. That’s a massive disparity. In those 16 losses, the ‘Cats average win probability was .554, meaning they should’ve won roughly nine of those games. (For more on the calculations see below.)

This is a major indictment of the coaching staff. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, the ‘Cats have had three relatively different rosters, yet the results have only gotten worse. Sure, this year’s team is one of the youngest in the country, but they’re 1-3 in games fitting the criteria I used above. That would mean 8-8 right now instead of 6-10 if they win those games (all of which win probability gave them a 74.7% chance of winning or higher). And if they won against Merrimack and Radford, games they should’ve absolutely won, that’s 10-6, a major difference from 6-10.

The point is that this should be a huge concern for the state of the program. It’s unclear how Collins will still be able to recruit well given how poorly his teams have performed. It’s also unclear how well he’ll be able to develop the current talents on his roster. Buie and Robbie Beran have shown tremendous promise as first-years. Miller Kopp and Pete Nance (especially) have looked like good players. The problem is the inconsistency. Sure, that will come with young players. But Collins, who at press conferences likes to frequently run down the roster and remark at how young each player is, is not in his first or second year coaching. He’s in his seventh year heading the program.

Few expected an NCAA Tournament-caliber team this year. However, having watched them play, there’s no reason to think that if the ‘Cats were 10-6 right now instead of 6-10, they could be contenders for an NIT bid. That’s what’s most frustrating. All the pieces are there to take that next step. But for every step forward Northwestern seems to take, they take three steps backward soon after.

Win Probability Calculations

To calculate the win probability used above, here are the statistics I used:

For all 31 games, I found the win probability (from ESPN) within the last five minutes of games when:

  1. Northwestern had its largest lead of 14 or less
  2. The latest possible time Northwestern had the ball when trailing/tied

Then, I averaged the 31 win probabilities.

I also found the average of win probability in those 16 losses. That came out to .554 which means instead of going 0-16 in those 16 games, the ‘Cats should’ve been about 9-7.

In the 15 wins, the average win probability was .945 meaning instead of going 15-0 in those 15 games, the ‘Cats should’ve been 14-1.

Note: this was not an exact science (link to spreadsheet). I’m aware using Northwestern’s largest lead would likely increase its win probability, but there was no real perfect way to do this. My goal was to get a ballpark figure.

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