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Northwestern: What’s Gone So Terribly, Terribly Wrong?

Look, let’s face facts. Northwestern basketball is bad. So how about mid-season retrospective?

I'm out of answers too, Bill.
I'm out of answers too, Bill.

They’re not Penn State bad; no, we can’t go that far as to compare Northwestern to a team they beat by 20 on their home court, but we can say with little uncertainty that this will not be "The Year".

And so, for those of you brave enough to foray into a discussion of the future at Sippin’ on Purple (if those links aren't reading enough...), you’ll notice that this is an awfully familiar neighborhood for those of us who regularly follow the ‘Cats. The erstwhile question: What to do with Bill Carmody? The Chicago Tribune declared that enough might be enough. Or is it? Lest we start picking sides over here, sometimes-OTE commenter TDozer might have summarized the argument best for us:

So instead we argue in circles after every single game and after every single basketball-related news item. It always comes down to this:

Pro-Carmody: NU basketball was terrible before Carmody. How terrible? When he came to campus, the starting center’s legs were an inch and a half different in length and the point guard was legally blind in one eye. He’s brought stability and some good players to the program, enough to even be in the NCAA tournament conversation mid-season most years, and he’s doing it with a fraction of the support the rest of the Big Ten gets. Every year, there are reasons for optimism, and it’s a slow building process. How on Earth can you fire someone after all of that?

Anti-Carmody: NU basketball is still terrible, just slightly less so, for as long as it doesn’t make the NCAA tournament. No one is excited about going to our nth consecutive NIT, especially when there are some years where even that’s a struggle. For every good recruit that comes in, there are two busts (usually at center), and a handful of injuries can totally derail promising teams. Duke and Stanford have the same potential excuses as Northwestern, but they’ve shown that it’s possible for a small academically-oriented school to be respectable or good or even great. Hell, Pat Fitzgerald has shown it’s possible, and it’s harder to build a football program than a basketball program. How on Earth can you not fire someone who’s so obviously plateaued?

I’m so incredibly sick of this argument. I hate everyone who has anything to say about it, and I hate myself when I let myself get sucked in. No minds are going to change, no one is going to say, "AH! I see! I’ve been wrong all along!" but we still shout at each other without end.

And ultimately I think that both sides are right. Bill Carmody is the most successful NU coach of the modern era, and the fact that he’s managed to do what he has speaks to both his coaching ability and his perseverance. But the hiring and firing of college coaches is about where you’re going, not what you’ve done, and this year especially that’s not looking great for Carmody.

But anyone who thinks a new coach is going to pay immediate dividends is just as deluded as those of us who think Carmody deserves more time. There are no quick fixes and you can’t just will a Gary Barnett-style sports miracle into existence. In the ongoing Shakesperean tragedy that is Northwestern basketball, Bill Carmody will get either a statue or to be run out of town. And he’ll probably get the opposite of the one he deserves, because tragedy is what we’re all about.

That’s my rant. I really wish I didn’t care anymore, but I do, and it kills me.

I’m so glad we had this discussion. Let’s not do it again for a while (like the end of the season), hmm?

Now, some of the problems with Northwestern in 2012-13 are evident. John Shurna is gone. Drew Crawford is injured. Jershon Cobb is suspended for the year but appears to be returning for 2013-14. But what’s different? Why is this Northwestern team struggling so much compared to past iterations of Bill Carmody’s Princeton Offense-running, poorly-rebounding teams?

To answer some of these questions, I turn to a set of metrics introduced to me by Sippin’ on Purple writer Macarthur91. If you haven’t checked out his recaps of tempo-free analysis after a Northwestern game, do it after his squad faces yours. Those metrics rely on four factors, weighted accordingly by Dean Oliver, who pioneered Tempo-Free:

Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) – 40%

Turnover Percentage (TO%) – 25%

Offensive Rebound Percentage (OReb%) – 20%

Free Throw Attempts/Field Goal Attempts (FTA/FGA%) – 15%

Here, then, are tempo-free stats for Northwestern and their opponents for the last four seasons:



















































Looking at the statistics, offensively, Northwestern’s deficiencies this season are glaring. The Princeton Offense relies on shooting the ball well and not turning it over, but Bill Carmody’s squad this year has not done that. Even just four games into B1G play, the ‘Cats are shooting notably worse (under 50% against a mostly non-conference slate) and turning the ball over at a higher clip than any year since 2009.

Defensively, Northwestern has held opponents to a lower shooting clip than years past, but that number is likely to rise with more B1G play and the overall poor quality of many of the Wildcats’ non-conference opponents. The TO% rate, while likely to decline marginally in B1G play, is a testament to the Wildcats’ ability to force turnovers out of gadget defenses like the 1-3-1 defense (broken down spectacularly by Rodger Sherman at SoP) consistently.

Overall, Northwestern’s problems stem first and foremost from offensive inefficiency. While Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn can provide offensive spark, Hearn’s ankle injury has limited his efficiency and Sobolewski can only drive futilely at the basket so many times a game. Three-point chucker Alex Marcotullio (41.3% in 2011-12) is shooting only 25% on the season, and without a John Shurna (44% from deep and 20.03 ppg), the ‘Cats are struggling to score with teams. Mix in the fact that, as Carmody noted before the Minnesota game—which set modern offense back 30 years with a 17-14 Gophers lead at halftime—he has to replace Drew Crawford’s production already this season, and you have a recipe for truly offensive offense.

Carmody has hinted that he plans to slow the game down to increase offensive efficiency. The ‘Cats appear to be going for the slow-down effort. In order to salvage the 2012-13 season, the slow-down may be an appropriate option. The answer, then is improving the efficiency of the offense. Better movement on offense, improved shooting from chuckers like Marcotullio and freshman John Shurna-moonlighter Kale Abrahamson, and an insistence on Northwestern’s tempo gives the ‘Cats a chance in B1G play. It won’t be pretty this way—but was it ever?