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Northwestern Basketball: Postmortem, 2015

You already know how it ends.

nbd just busy riding
nbd just busy riding
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014-15 campaign in Evanston represented the second year of Chris Collins’ rebuilding process at Northwestern. By the way, have you heard the Wildcats are the only power-five conference team never to make the NCAA Tournament. So that’s exciting. And guess what? They didn’t in 2014-15. But you probably knew that.

Anyways, there are a number of things to keep in mind about Northwestern basketball in 2014-15. And let’s do that by keeping the numbers in mind:

Record: 15-17 (6-12 B1G)

Kenpom: 118th

AdjO: 105.7 (94th)

AdjD: 102.4 (165th)

AdjT: 60.4 (339th)

Part 1: The Unpredictably Predictable Non-Conference

I’ll note that I predicted Northwestern to go 16-15 (6-12). That was predicated upon Northwestern losing to Northern Iowa, Butler, and Georgia Tech in the non-conference, though I was very open to the idea that they would go 9-4, dropping one inexplicable game to Western or Central Michigan.

Turns out that’s what happened. The ‘Cats were overmatched by a stellar UNI squad, showed their youth against Georgia Tech, and went cold for a long stretch at Hinkle.

Saying the predictable happened, though, fails to tell the entire story of the Northwestern non-conference slog. In the home opener (which I attended) Houston Baptist took the ‘Cats to the last couple minutes of the game before Northwestern—led by Alex Olah—sealed it late. Subsequent matchups saw Northwestern require Tre Demps heroics to escape North Florida in regulation and Elon in overtime. Northwestern, through December 14, had failed to eclipse 70 points in a game before dropping 101 on Mississippi Valley State. Finally, mercifully, the ‘Cats put us out of our collective misery by losing to Central Michigan, thus stopping our asking when they would lose a game they could have and probably should have (despite the Chippewas being the higher-ranked Kenpom club) won.

In particular, a few concerning themes emerged for the rest of the season. First, Alex Olah, for all his Romanian awesomeness, struggled to defend the pick-and-roll, often getting beat by smaller, faster centers. Seth Tuttle’s dominance (19 points on 7-11 shooting and 5-6 FTs) comes to mind, as does CMU’s Luke Meyer, who dropped 18 on 8-10 shooting before fading back into the obscurity of averaging 15.9 minutes and 5.5 points per game. Second, the ‘Cats would go cold for long stretches of the game, especially against Georgia Tech, when Northwestern was kind enough to spot the Yellow Jackets a 20-2 lead over the first 6:55 of the contest. Third, the whole team looked woefully unable to play man defense, despite that being the bread-and-butter of Chris Collins’ defense. But more on that later.

Part 2: We’ll always have Piscataway…

Northwestern beat Rutgers at the RAC, thus starting the year 1-0 in the B1G. That is the positive from this game. The ‘Cats went 10:16 without scoring a single, solitary goddamn point in the second half, somehow holding on as the Scarlet Knights shot 30% from the field and 28% from deep. This game was an abortion of basketball.

Part 3: Avert your eyes.

Northwestern lost 10 games in a row in the B1G. Those losses ranged from the #beatemdown (Wisconsin, parts one and two) to the #meh (a home loss to Purdue) to the #AREYOUFUCKINGKIDDINGMEHOWUNLUCKYCANWEGET (@Michigan State, Michigan, @Maryland). After a pitiful 68-44 effort at home against the Spartans in which most of the team looked disinterested, typical players’ meetings and coaching changes ensued. They addressed, among things:

· Abysmally-bad man-to-man defense

· Freshmen being freshmen (Bryant McIntosh missing a game-tying layup at Michigan, Vic Law shooting something like 15% from deep, Scottie Lindsey somehow playing one minute in a game and 21 in another)

· Terrible rebounding/post play

Part 4: Competence!

Northwestern made changes, enabling a stretch in which Northwestern won 5 of its next 6 games, including wins over Iowa in overtime, at Minnesota, over Indiana at home, and over Michigan in double overtime in which Tre Demps was just stupid on fire. During that stretch, things improved:

· Northwestern switched almost exclusively to a 2-3 zone, which allowed the ‘Cats to sink Alex Olah into the middle of the lane, where he found a new hobby calling himself the "quarterback" of the defense (did NFL Europe have a team in Bucharest?) and swatting Iowa Hawkeyes’ shots

· Freshmen improved: Vic Law remembered how to shoot the ball (3-3 from deep against Indiana), Scottie Lindsey embraced his role on the team (38 minutes against Iowa!), and Bryant McIntosh, fighting a bug, came into his role as a distributor and found ways to score (18 against Iowa, 17 at Minnesota).

· Rebounding marginally improved despite the zone, while Alex Olah’s post play shocking improved when he wasn’t on the bench with 2 fouls just 5 minutes into the game.

Northwestern was annihilated at Iowa and by Indiana in the BTT to end the season and declined to put itself up for CBI consideration, but much like the Cubs fans I was forced to interact with during my time in Evanston, hope springs eternal.

Looking Ahead

Departures: JerShon Cobb (graduation, 22.3 mpg, 6.1 ppg); Dave Sobolewski (graduation, 10.9 mpg, 2.6 ppg); Nick Segura (left team, 3 minutes, 2 points); Johnnie Vassar (transfer, 3.9 mpg, .8 ppg)

Arrivals: Joey Van Zegeren (transfer from VaTech, 9.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg); Jordan Ash (SG, Chicago); Aaron Falzon (6’7" PF), Derek Pardon (6’8" PF)

Hopefully the return of decent depth in the ‘Cats lineup will allow Ash, Falzon, and Pardon to develop the bodies necessary to compete in the Big Ten. They’ll probably play and experience the same growing pains as McIntosh, Law, and Lindsey, but they’re more exciting young talent (all 3* or better) coming to Evanston. The latter three freshmen all experienced their share of struggles to adjust to the physical nature of the Big Ten and will be counted on to grow in 2015-16 to avoid forcing Ash, Falzon, and Pardon to bear a large load.

Tre Demps will continue to be his goofy self, going ham on teams when they least expect it, but if he finds a way to not disappear for long stretches, especially against defenses committed to stopping him, he’ll make some noise.

Joey van Zegeren, while an offensive liability away from the basket, will provide the athleticism to complement and/or spell Alex Olah for stretches on the inside. I’m still in favor of a "big" lineup action (McIntosh, Demps, Law, JVZ, Olah) once in a while, but part of that is predicated on Alex Olah’s continued development as a center. The ‘Cats need to continuously pound the rock to him, allowing Law, McIntosh, and Demps more room to work on the outside, but Olah needs to consistently assert himself in the paint. This likely is a combination of (1) continued work on his footwork, movement, and mechanics; and (2) quicker shooting/passing when receiving the ball.

Chris Collins needs to display more flexibility as a coach. The former Duke assistant was lauded for his switch from man defense to a 2-3 zone midway through the season, but it took far too long for that switch and likely cost the ‘Cats at least a game during the 10-game losing streak. While talented assistant coaches like former NBA assistant Brian James proved invaluable during 2014-15, Collins needs to show more in-game flexibility with both his lineups (Lindsey and Nathan Taphorn in particular disappeared for baffling stretches during the season, consigned to the bench) and his play-calls.

Is next year The Year™?

I mean, probably not. That said, you never know. If a lot of the things I noted above happen, then maybe the ‘Cats find themselves on the bubble. But dare to dream, man. Dare to dream.

How did the OTE "Writers" do?

Before the season kicked off, the OTE "writers" predicted the finish of each team in the Big Ten. For Northwestern, those averaged out to 15-16 (4-14). The ‘Cats improved on the conference record by two games and lived up to overall expectations. Particular plaudits go to me (duh) and Coach Eric for correctly predicting 6-12 in conference, while Aaron Yorke and babaoreally nailed the 15-16 overall record. Candystripes for Breakfast was laughably wrong about 3-15 in conference, while no one was more than 2 games off in their overall prediction for Northwestern.

Thus concludes the 2014-15 Northwestern Basketball Postmortem. May this season rest in peace. Now let’s all go get drunk and forget about it.