Though it allows a respectable 64.9 points per game, Northwestern is an undeniably bad basketball team. The Wildcats have been relatively effective on the defensive end, looking sharp at times in zones and doing their best to compensate for a criminally undersized frontcourt. But all of that is overshadowed by their inability to put up points, which is making the offensive struggles of last year's team look somehow decent.
With a first-year coach inheriting no semblance of a post offense, it was fair to expect Northwestern to live and die by the jumper. But nobody expected it to look this ugly this early. Drew Crawford ranks 474th in the country with an adjusted player value of 3.40, and an astounding 42 percent of the Cats' shots have come from behind the arc, though they're only connecting on 34 percent of them.
"When we're taking bad shots, it doesn't allow us to set up or get on the glass," said Dave Sobolewski, who leads the team in attempted three-pointers, making an anemic 20.5 percent. "We definitely need to be more aggressive getting to the rim, especially with the rule changes. It's been a focus of ours."
The Wildcats need to approach that focus as soon as possible. Come January, Northwestern kicks off Big Ten play against fourth-ranked Wisconsin, followed by road games at Michigan and Iowa. If NU can't get to the lane now, they're in for a world of trouble in the most physical conference in the country.
If anybody knows about over-reliance on the long ball, it's Tre Demps, the oft guard who attempted the third-most shots on the team last year despite posting a field goal percentage well south of 40. He's come on strong of late, finishing with double-digit points in three of his last four games. Demps, who plays with a self-described "short-term memory," remains optimistic despite the offense's lowly start.
"It's just confidence. Coach has confidence in all of us. That's what he's always emphasized: if you have a play, go make it," he said. "Day by day we're getting better. We're looser with the ball."
Demps' aggressiveness is welcomed on a team plagued by hesitant ball movement. And just as significant is his patience; Demps has tallied six games of four or more free throw attempts, while Alex Olah has just 19 tries in 10 games. For Northwestern to get better looks in the paint, starting Demps at point guard seems like the logical move.
What does a starting rotation with Demps mean? It leaves the Wildcats with two burgeoning post players in Olah and Sanjay Lumpkin, and three aggressive backcourt shooters in Demps, Crawford and Jershon Cobb that force perimeter pressure from opposing defenses. Plugging in Demps also means committing even more of the offense to three-pointers, but his 37.5 shooting percentage on threes is good for third-best on the team among players with at least 20 attempts.
"It's just who we are as a team. We have a lot of great shooters," Demps says. "But we feel that we can get the ball inside whenever we really want. We believe in Olah and [Nikola Cerina] and those guys. It's something we're going to try to do more, but it's not something we're harping on."
Of course, Demps moving into the starting lineup means someone gets bumped out. We began to see glimpses of that process Saturday, when Chris Collins played Dave Sobolewski for just 15 minutes. After averaging more than 35 minutes per game as a freshman, Sobolewski's fall from grace is almost complete: a player that once lead the conference in assists-to-turnovers ratio has struggled to set up his teammates just two years later, instead reverting to a horribly inefficient three-point shot and struggling to adjust to Collins' man defense.
"It's just the way games are playing out. I don't feel that I've taken any bad shots this year," Sobolewski says.
The numbers beg to differ. Sobolewski's seen his points per game increase by just .5 from his freshman year mark, though he's taking more than an extra shot per game in reduced minutes. The assists are down and the turnovers are up, and Collins experimenting with more athletic options at the point is encouraging to say the least.
Yet adjustments to offensive philosophy won't be made with one substitution or a series of different opponents. Collins is still working with personnel recruited to play in the Princeton offense, and a team stacked with jump shooters isn't going to suddenly find driving ability without weeks or even months of growing pains.
"We're always searching for ways we can be better offensively. Looking at the tape, I thought we got really good shots. Olah had eight shots, Drew and JerShon had a lot of shots close to the basket. We just have to finish. Our threes were wide-open shots." Collins says of his team's loss to NC State Wednesday. "When we didn't score early, that really affected the rest of our game. We had four starters shoot 4-for-25. It doesn't matter what team you are, who you're playing; if you do that you're going to have a tough time winning."
Demps notes that the team is still adjusting to the implementation of a new scheme, while Sobolewski points to the lack of transition offense as one of Northwestern's main problems. For Collins, the offense will rebound once his players match the sense of urgency expelled by Drew Crawford, the senior who's been the only one to find even marginal success flashing to the rim.
When his centers start playing better, more lanes will open. Olah's inability to get to the line is troublesome, as is Cerina's inability to post up. The Cats may need to feed the ball more to Sanjay Lumpkin, who's shooting 50 percent from the field this year despite though only seeing 3.4 shots per night.
Northwestern isn't a particularly fast team, nor is it a tall team by any stretch. Collins notes that the Wildcats only have one or two "gazelles" to lead the offense on runs, and those players — Crawford and Cobb — will undoubtedly see more looks as the Big Ten schedule approaches. For now, there's time to experiment, be it with more up-tempo pushes or more designed post plays for Lumpkin and Olah. What there is not time for is uninspired chucking.
"We need to get the ball to Drew and JerShon out more in the open floor. We need to get Sanjay some layups, get him going," Collins says. "I want the guys driving, there's no question about it. We do our best to try to get our guys in position to be aggressive."
There were signs of that Saturday, when only 35 percent of the team's shots were from behind the arc, and when Olah shot 4-of-8 from the inside. There were also the lingering symptoms of a bad team trying to adjust, with NU shooting less than 33 percent from the floor and scoring just 51 points against a shoddy Western Michigan team.
But the results will be ugly whether Northwestern commits to its struggling three-point offense or tries to adjust on the fly. For now, it's just about finding that gazelle and running with it, before the Western Michigans turn to Michigans and the rebuilding process tests that much more patience.