Perhaps the best story so far in the season is the Northwestern Wildcats. To say that Head Coach Bill Carmody's back was against the wall this season might be an understatement. FireBillCarmody.com celebrates its third year anniversary next month. The guy showed up on every preseason hot seat list.
And the main problem has been defense.
As the chart shows, the only year under Carmody that the Wildcats have held opponents to under 0.98 points per possession was 2001-02. That was also the only winning season of Carmody's tenure at Northwestern.
Indeed, defense was the problem last season as well. The Wildcats sported the worst defense in the Big Ten, and that was with the 26th-best defensive turnover rate in the nation. Basically, when their opponents didn't turn the ball over, they scored on the Wildcats at will. Some of these numbers are off-the-charts bad for a Division I team in a major conference:
Opp. 3 point percentage
Opp. 2 point percentage
Opp. offensive rebounding percentage
And although the Wildcats had offensive problems as well, that doesn't matter when a crisis exists on defense. And this was a crisis.
So with his seat temperature nearing the boiling point, and coming off a team winning all of 7 Division 1 games the previous season, with a horrendous defense, what did Carmody do?
He got taller.
See, height brings defense, all else equal. And not just height anywhere, but specifically frontcourt height. There doesn't appear to be a big defense issue with sub-6 footers in the backcourt, so long as the guys down low are not so elevationally-challenged. Last year, Northwestern's frontcourt height ("Effective Height") ranked 267th in Division 1. This year, it's 16th. Carmody's pulled this trick by playing 6-8 Ivan Peljusic more, 6-4 Sterling Williams (who didn't bring much to the offense anyways) less, and brought in a couple of tall freshmen (6-8 John Shurna and 7-0 Kyle Rowley) as well.
The results speak for themselves. Northwestern sports the 22nd best defense by efficiency in the country so far this season. And yes, there are a lot of cupcakes on that schedule, but the Wildcats are also the only loss for Florida State (who beat Florida a couple weeks ago), lost a close one on the road to a very good Butler team, and it's not like the Wildcats are just squeaking by the likes of DePaul, UMKC, and TAMU-CC. They're killing them.
And unless the Wildcats lose every single game remaining on their schedule, they will eclipse last year's win total, and appear to be well-positioned to make a run for the NCAA Tournament (which would be the first in school history). This Saturday the Wildcats face Stanford on the road. This is the kind of game that stands out on Selection Sunday, so Carmody is no doubt working extra hard this week. Last season, the Cardinal dispatched the Wildcats 71-60 in Evanston, and they were missing one of the Lopez brothers. Robin made his presence felt, however, blocking 5 shots. Stanford shot 53% from 2 point range on the day.
This year, the Lopez twins are gone, and the tallest player in the Stanford rotation stands 6-8. That hasn't helped new Head Coach Johnny Dawkins, as the Cardinal sports one of the worst 2 point defenses in the country (opponents are shooting 55.7%). This year, expect Northwestern to control the paint.