North by Northwestern

- Ky McKeon

NOTE: The pending Purdue smackdown was not considered for this article... Everything in here still stands though...

The (wild)cat is out of the bag in Evanston, Illinois. After Sunday’s convincing victory at home against the Indiana Hoosiers, Northwestern men’s basketball is one step closer to clinching its first ever NCAA Tournament berth. The Wildcats have been the epitome of futility over their long history in Division 1, owning the unique, if unenviable, distinction of being the ONLY “Power 6” school never to make an NCAA Tournament. In fact, Northwestern is one of five schools overall (of the original Division 1 teams) to never reach the Promised Land (along with William & Mary, the Citadel, St. Francis (BK), and Army). That all changes in 2017.

The Cats’ path to success began with the hire of Chris Collins, a product of the Evil Empire, back in 2013 on the heels of saying goodbye to their long-time (and most successful) coach, Bill Carmody. Carmody took the Cats to four straight NITs from 2009 – 2012, but could never get over the hump despite notching two 20-win seasons (two of only three in school history). Collins has improved his team’s record in each of his first three seasons, and appears poised to shatter the school’s single-season win record of 20 (only three wins away!) this season. Collins has been steadily building to this stage of success, but even he couldn’t have expected the magnitude of the Cats' achievements two-thirds of the year in. This outburst of success begs the question, “how the hell is Northwestern so damn good?” Let’s dive.

Northwestern is currently 18-4 overall and 7-2 in Big Ten play, good for their best starts in each metric, respectively. The Cats are the nation’s 30th best team per (their highest ranking in that system ever), and boast resume-bolstering wins over Dayton, Wake Forest, Texas, Ohio State (away), Nebraska (away), and Indiana. At 34th in the RPI with those aforementioned wins and zero bad losses, the Cats are not just “in” the Field of 68, they’re COMFORTABLY in.

This gaudy resume is driven primarily by their steady defense, which ranks #29 per The Cats rank 7th in the country in 2P% defense, 24th in 3P% defense, and 7th in BLK%. The defense doesn’t overwhelm teams with pressure, but NU players rarely, if ever, lose track of their man, always contest three-point jumpers, and dig down in the low post. The Cats force teams to move the ball and are excellent at extending possessions on their defensive end, ranking in the top 60 in the country in average defensive possession length. This type of tenacity frustrates opposing offenses and often forces undisciplined players into unwanted shots. Just take a look at what they did against Indiana:

Like most great defenses, Northwestern’s is great because of contributions from the entire team. Their sum is greater than their parts. Helping on drives, talking on picks, and clogging driving / passing lanes is all a team-focused effort. That’s not to say the Cats do not have great individual defenders. Center Dererk Pardon, the anchor of the defense, averages 2.7 blocks per game, good for 14th in the country. Pardon stands only 6’8”, but his 7-foot wingspan allows him to bother posting big men and driving guards, propelling Northwestern’s 46th ranked at-the-rim defense.

Vic Law is the team’s best perimeter defender, a 6’7’’ redshirt sophomore that’s currently allowing an absurd 0.647 points per possession on spot-up jumpers per Synergy. Law missed all of last season with injury but has come back with a vengeance this year to harass unsuspecting wings.

The most important piece of Northwestern’s defense, however, is Sanjay Lumpkin, one of only two seniors on the Wildcat roster. Lumpkin’s impact on defense doesn’t show up in the box score, but trust me, he is absolutely a premier defender. Per Synergy, Lumpkin is the team’s best isolation defender on a points per possession basis, but it’s his versatility that brings the most value. Lumpkin is capable of guarding four positions on the floor (point guard would be a stretch), and is most impressive when matching up against opposing centers. I watched, in person, Lumpkin, a 6’6’’ wing, guard John Collins of Wake Forest and Thomas Bryant of Indiana, with success. His strength and basketball IQ allows him to deny post entry and maintain a bubble of space between the post-man and the bucket. Here’s what I mean:

Now, defense can only take a team so far (sorry Old Dominion). Great teams need to be able to score as well. The Cats’ offense ranks 42nd per driven by their ability to protect the rock (22nd in turnover rate), knock down free throws (15h in FT%), and pound the offensive glass (79th in offensive rebounding percentage). Northwestern’s offense is slow and methodical; they prefer to walk the ball up the court off made baskets and slow down the tempo off misses. Possessions often unfold with point guard Bryant McIntosh dribbling around the top of the key, perhaps off a soft ball screen or two, for 15 to 20 seconds before making a play (the wonderful dribble hand-off is also a favorite tool of Coach Collins). McIntosh’s handling and passing ability allows the Cats to play this type of style and still be successful. The guard is adept at finding cutting wings, roll men, or open perimeter shooters, and rarely turns the ball over. His passing is the driver for the Cats’ 5th-ranked assist-to-field goals made ratio, and, individually, McIntosh ranks 2nd on the Cats’ all-time assists list (and he’s just a junior). Here’s some Mac eye candy:

While McIntosh is the undisputed “face” of the program, his supporting cast is loaded with consistency and talent, even if they don’t have household names. Wings Scottie Lindsey and the aforementioned Law are having career years, averaging 15.5 and 14.3 point per game and shooting 36% and 43% from three, respectively. Their ability to knock down open jumpers and penetrate to the cup gives McIntosh two deadly missiles on both sides of the floor to work with. Lumpkin, who boasts the 16th best offensive rating in college basketball, is the perfect role player, scoring when he needs to (15 points versus Indiana) while doing the dirty work (back to back double-doubles; averages 6.8 boards per game). Pardon is the 5th best offensive rebounder in the conference and rarely misses around the rim. His aforementioned long arms allow for ample tip outs and second-chance opportunities.

The bench is a sea of productivity with junior Gavin Skelly owning the sixth-man role like Keanu Reeves owned the John Wick role. Skelly is shooting 80% from the line, 59% from two, and 36% from deep this season while ranking 50th in the country in block percentage. Nathan Taphorn, the other senior on the squad, shoots 45% from downtown, and freshmen Barrett Benson, a skinny 6’10” kid with an afro, and Isiah Brown, a burgeoning point guard, form a solid foundation for the future.

When in sync, as it usually is, Northwestern’s offense hums:

The Cats have rattled off five straight wins and look poised to finish in the top four in the Big Ten standings, an unprecedented feat. With their defensive and offensive cohesiveness and team mentality, the Purple Kitties can compete with any team in the nation. They’ll be chomping at the bit to prove it in March.