Northwestern Midseason Roundup

Michael Hlebasko with a mid-conference season report on Northwestern basketball.

Northwestern has made it just past the halfway mark of the conference schedule, holding a record of 5-5. This leaves them improbably tied with both Ohio State and Wisconsin, and ahead of such programs as Minnesota, Indiana, and (last place) Illinois. After a nonconference slate that didn't inspire much confidence or excitement, this team has become a joy to watch and has tallied some of the more impressive road wins in recent program history. Whatever happens the rest of the way, Chris Collins's first year has produced some great games already. However, here's what to watch for the rest of the regular season:

NIT Dreams
There's no reason not to set the NIT as the goal going forward. A month ago, Northwestern was finishing up a second straight blowout loss in Ann Arbor and had dipped below the NIT eligibility line at 7-8, with little hope that they would be able to win enough conference games to get back in the mix. Now Northwestern sits at 12-11 and needs just four more wins to have a chance at an unlikely NIT bid. Northwestern has four more games against the bottom four of the conference, getting Nebraska and Penn State at home while also making trips to Nebraska and Purdue. The only game on the schedule that seems too tall a task is the matchup in East Lansing next Thursday, but if Northwestern continues to succeed on defense, then all of their games are winnable.

But despite some recent excitement on social media, the NCAA Tournament is a pipe dream. It would take sweeping the non-Michigan State games, or winning six along with Michigan State, and even those scenarios would likely leave them needing a conference tournament win. The tournament bid isn't far away, but it's unrealistic for this year's team. The NIT is within their reach however, and as the always-apt Nick Medline pointed out, this is the first and last year I plan on caring about the NIT.

Can the Offense Get Better?
Northwestern has spent the last month making advanced statistics devotees pull their hair out. Ken Pomeroy even tweeted that Northwestern is "just a colossal pain in the ass." I think opposing coaches would echo Pomeroy's sentiments, at least about the Northwestern defense. The Wildcats have been kittens on offense for most of the season, however. Even with heroic turns by Drew Crawford (who should be the last player to wear the number 1 at Northwestern, no question) in recent games, Northwestern has failed to put up even bad offensive numbers. Bad would be a huge improvement, actually.

But the Wildcats have made enough shots to win, and Jershon Cobb and Tre Demps have both made steady improvements in their ability to create shots for themselves and others off the dribble. The endless calls for Alex Olah to become a centerpiece of the offense still don't resonate with me. I don't think he passes with enough alacrity (he's not selfish, just doesn't read and react to open man on time), and he's equally slow dealing with double teams. However, he has done a very good job of making the most of his limited touches on the block.

Further, the team's ball handlers need to be more willing to find him rolling after high screens. This team is much more dangerous when it can make three-pointers, and for that reason the greatest quick-fix opportunity on offense is probably to get Kale Abrahamson going. He hit a few deep threes against Minnesota and is a weapon when he shoots with confidence. I don't expect the offense to become even middle of the pack in the conference, but I do think they could be marginally better the rest of the season.

Will the Late Game Heroics Continue?
As delightful as the Wildcats string of close wins has been, the cynic in me has had "unsustainable" alarms going off in my head. The wins at Indiana and Minnesota, as well at home against Purdue, all relied on some pretty incredible shot making (largely by Crawford and Demps) from a struggling offense. One of the greatest contributions of sports analytics has been the revelation that in both football and basketball, wins and losses in very close games overwhelmingly even out for teams. However, a team that is prepared to play hard-nosed defense for 40 minutes can get itself into close games down the stretch that it shouldn't have been in in the first place.

It is easy to view Northwestern's conference results as unsustainable because they've won a lot of close games and their losses have largely been blowouts. However, playing Indiana and Minnesota close was outperforming projections to begin with. Thus, they get into coin flip situations late in games against teams that at tipoff were heavy favorites to win. If Northwestern stumbles and ends up in a dogfight with Nebraska or Penn State, then their luck might catch up to them. However, as of now, it's not a cause for concern.

I've never been much for projections, especially when they involve teams I haven't seen play enough to really understand (I feel like I need to see a team play one full game at they very least to speak on them). Now that I've seen just about everyone on the schedule enough to get a feel for their strengths and weakness, I think I can offer educated projections for Northwestern's remaining slate. I expect them to take care of Nebraska and Penn State at home, and that they will use the week off before their game at Nebraska to avoid any letdown there. I think they will beat one of Minnesota or Indiana at home, but not both. After that, I don't expect them to win at Ohio State or Michigan State, though I do believe they may avoid getting blowout again the rest of the way.

Purdue lost four in a row before taking down Minnesota, and plays Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin consecutively before Northwestern comes to town. The Wildcats can get the job done in West Lafayette and finish with 17 wins, a winning conference record, a good shot at an NIT home game and an outside shot at a 20-win season. Injuries, foul trouble, and the awful offense could certainly become issues for Northwestern and derail their upward trajectory, but I feel that optimism about this team is warranted right now. There are eight regular season games left in the first year of the Chris Collins era, in what might be the last season before a massive paradigm shift for Northwestern basketball. That also means that there are only eight more regular season opportunities for Wildcats fans to appreciate Drew Crawford live starting on Saturday against Nebraska, and not a single one of them should be missed.

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