It often made up for the "Talent Gap" we so often discuss these days. Bill Carmody and his offense highlighted the three-point shot simply because he had both the correct system and the correct personnel.
The 2011-12 team – close to sniffing the NCAA tournament – made an excellent 38.5 percent of shots from behind the arc. Shurna, Crawford and Marcotullio were over the 40-percent mark, with Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn providing excellent contributions in the high-volume offense.
But it's basic statistics. They don't have anything like that now. They don't have enough shooting to overcome the undermanned frontcourt and lack of athleticism. It seems that every game, Chris Collins bemoans the lack of scoring and constant shooting slumps. More often than not, he's right.
Really, the only time we watched Northwestern control the pace and find offensive rhythm was against UIC — when Sobolewski erupted and the ‘Cats made 11 triples. Even including that, we've seen a team losing its identity because it doesn't have the right guys.
In the end, set aside the suddenly endless chatter about Carmody versus Collins. This team's offense was recruited to shoot, and they're sitting at 32.1 percent this season — tied for 246th in Division I. Some numbers are unsustainable (Sobolewski's for one) but this seems enough of a sample size to make conclusions. It's not the same team.
There are three perplexing things. To compete, Northwestern will have to make shots. The Wildcats' best statistical three-point shooter – Drew Crawford – is shooting fewer deep balls than ever as he tries to reinvent himself as a pseudo-post player. It's leading to awkward drives, him disappearing in a confusing role, and less opportunity for the Wildcats to stage runs against elite or above-average opponents.
Then, their starting lineup is devoid of the shooting threats it used to have. For all of the Tre Demps criticism – and his lingering inconsistency – he can challenge guys from the perimeter. The hardest worker on the team, he's at an improved 38 percent clip, well above the "take any open shot" level. But he's not starting. Instead, you have the center, an offensive black hole in Sanjay Lumpkin, someone more comfortable as a midrange creator (Jershon Cobb), a less-focused Drew Crawford, and the struggling Dave Sobolewski. Don't even look at the roster. Consider the lack of significant perimeter threats and you'll understand some micro-level reasons behind their struggles. This team was built one way, and the foundation eroded.
Finally, there are the other bench players: Nathan Taphorn and Kale Abrahamson. Taphorn almost already qualifies as a disappointing recruit, flailing on defense and seizing up on contested outside looks (32 percent overall). Abrahamson's not really playing (guess why), but when he does, the other team at least has to respect the offensive threats. Otherwise, they can pack it in, challenge the one shooter and avoid giving Alex Olah any space inside (Wisconsin succeeded there for only five minutes). Kale's intensity is up, his shooting is up to 37 percent from three and 42 percent overall. Yet, for some reason (again, guess), he's playing about five fewer minutes per game this season — with the team needing him much more than before.
In the past dozen seasons or so, this team hasn't been built to contend with excellent frontcourt play, dynamic athletes, or through violent pressure defense and up-tempo play.
It's true – from any competent eyewitness – that Collins needs to figure out better offensive sets to give his shooters space. Too often, 25 seconds of the shot clock bleed until Alex Olah ends up holding the ball at the top of the circle. (And that happened a shocking number of times against Wisconsin.) There are some things he can do, and at the same time, only so much he can do.
Take away the advanced statistics and the obviously sad advanced offensive ratings. It's pretty basic. Right now, the team can't shoot. And until Northwestern does, we'll be watching many more Thursdays.