08-09 Overall Record: 17-14
08-09 Conference Record: 8-10 (9th)
09-09 Conference Efficiency Margin: -0.04 (T-9th)
Percent of Returning Minutes: 79.1
Percent of Returning Freshman Minutes: 25.4
On paper, everything points to a possible, if not probable, NCAA Tournament berth for the Wildcats. They return a ton of minutes (Craig Moore's departure is the only significant one), have a lot of sophomores with playing time experience, and they're coming off a 17-win season in which they sniffed the bubble.
But there are three things standing in Northwestern's way, as I see it. For one, the conference as a whole should be better (more on that in a later post). The second issue is a bit more hair-raising: have we reached the limits of Bill Carmody's offense? Last year's team was easily his most efficient, and it's not hard to figure out why. The Wildcats shot 39% from 3 point range as a team, and dedicated 42% of their shots to the deep ball. It was enough to make Todd Lickliter and John Beilein green with envy. Not only did they shoot 3s often and well, but they also limited turnovers in true POT fashion, coughing it up on just 17.8% of their possessions.
In short, Northwestern played its style perfectly. But that's the thing - even having done that, the Wildcats "only" ranked 4th in the conference in offensive efficiency. Northwestern's trouble areas are obvious and longstanding. They don't rebound their misses (last in the conference), they don't get to the line (9th in the conference), and they don't shoot 2 pointers well (8th in the conference). These are the classic symptoms of a short team. The bad news is that Northwestern was not short last season. In fact, they were one of the tallest teams in the country, as we noted yesterday. Sure, they were better than they were in 07-08 in these areas, but they were still pretty bad. Ultimately, there are limitations in every offensive scheme, and Carmody's version of the Princeton offense appears to suffer considerably when it comes to "in the paint" stats. Making matters worse is Kyle Rowley's uncertain status after fracturing a bone in his left foot.
All of this means that if the Cats are to improve on last season, most of the gains will be seen on the defensive end. Carmody has some built-in benefits here, however, as his zone consistently creates turnovers. Even when they went 8-22, this was an elite team in terms of getting opponents to cough up the ball. John Shurna's statline indicates he can be a capable defender, and Craig Moore's absence will ensure that he gets a lot of minutes (given Shurna's offensive abilities). Beyond him, Northwestern fans hope that Rowley's defensive presence includes more blocked shots, and less blocked forearms.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, someone is going to have to start pulling down rebounds. In Big Ten play, opponents grabbed bearly 40% of the available boards on the offensive end. In other words, the average Big Ten team became Michigan State on the glass when playing against Northwestern.
The above graph tracks the offensive rebounding of Northwestern's conference opponents as well as the offensive rebounding of Michigan State. Over the past five years, it's been a coin flip as to whether NU opponents or MSU will have the better offensive rebounding season. Given the amount of time Izzo & his squad put into going after boards, that's a very bad thing. Bill Carmody is certainly aware of the problem, but so far he's been short on solutions. In any case, defensive rebounding figures to play a big part in whether or not Northwestern goes to its first Dance.