Three to success

It's a bit of a no-duh statement, but nonetheless: When the Wildcats hit their threes, they do a lot better. Sure, that's true of just about every team in the country. But for the 08-09 Cats, wins and losses often hinged on the team's ability to hit threes. And judging by the roster – and what Coach Carmody had to say on media day – threes will continue to be a big factor for the Cats.

It would be classified along with your other basketball no-brainers.* Right up there with, "The fewer turnovers you have, the more likely you are to win." And, "You'll have a better chance of winning if you score more points."

* Of course, some sports axioms are a bit deceiving. Purple Reign stumbled across a good example of this a few weeks back when looking at NU's third down conversion rate in football. For three years running, NU has been one of the better third down conversion teams in the nation. Funny thing, though, is that in 2008, the Wildcats lost all of their better third down conversion games and won all their worst ones. Read all about that counterintuitive discovery in this gripping analysis.

So, this is admittedly a Well, duh statement. But here goes:

The better Northwestern shoots three-pointers, the better the team's chances of winning. (Hey, you were warned it was juvenilely obvious.)

Naturally, every team in the nation does better when they shoot well from three-point land. That's not unique to the Wildcats. Granted. But for Northwestern, threes are often the lifeblood of the offense. For NU, three-pointers are a matter of life and death – or at least wins and losses.

Don't believe me? Look at the numbers. Northwestern was No. 23 in the nation – out of 345 teams – in three-point percentage in 2008-09. The Cats shot 38.6 percent – far and away the best number in the Big Ten; Iowa was second in the conference, yet the Hawkeyes were just No. 71 in the nation.

But it wasn't just quality shooting – it was quantity, too. The Cats were No. 22 in three-pointers per game, nailing 8.2 per contest. The Cats attempted 21.3 long-balls per game and – here's the kicker – averaged only 60.5 possessions. Do that math, and NU shot threes on more than one-third of its possessions. That number is even more stark when you look at possessions per game: NU's 60.5 rank No. 336 in that nation. So only nine teams in all of college basketball had fewer possessions, yet NU still canned more threes than almost anyone, a true testament to how important the three-pointer is to this* team.

* And save Craig Moore, NU is bringing back pretty much the same outfit as last season. Now, that's a big sidenote. Moore, a third-team All-Big Ten player in 2009, ranks fourth all-time in the Big Ten in three-pointers. He hit 110 threes last season and set the school record for career threes way back in November. He could stroke it, to be sure, and his absence will be felt. But don't expect the team to all of a sudden forget about that three-point stripe.

Carmody was talking about Kevin Coble's three-point ability after about 10 sentences when he addressed the media on Oct. 19:

(Coble is) good out there and we're going to have a hard time – I'm going to have to put Coach (Mitch) Henderson out there and play him because he can score just about any time he wants and he's making long shots. Those of you who have been around a while know that when he was a freshman and he came here and he wasn't really a three-point shooter. He didn't shoot long shots. He was a scorer, but he's moved it out further and further. Each year he's gotten better and now he shoots two-and-a-half steps past that three-point line pretty consistently.

And of sophomore John Shurna, Carmody said:

I don't think that we can replace his three-point shooting, but Shurna has taken a lot of them in three days of practice and I think he's going to surprise some people.

So yeah, the team will still know where the line is.

With so few possessions, every shot becomes that much more important because, simply, there are less chances to score each game. For a team that doesn't have many possessions, and takes a lot of threes, three-point shooting is obviously paramount to success. More so than with most teams.

And what makes three-pointers super-duper-extra important in Carmody's system is that the Cats struggle in other areas. Because of a relative dearth of athleticism – at least compared with some Big Ten outfits – the team doesn't rebound all that well. The Cats ranked No. 333 in rebounds per game (32.3), No. 320 in offensive rebounds per game (27.9) and No. 336 in defensive rebounds (19.7).

Now, obviously not having a lot of possessions means that there aren't going to be as many chances to get boards: More possessions means more shots which means more rebounds; fewer possession means fewer shots which means fewer rebounds. True. But it's not just the raw totals that attest to NU's trouble on the boards. In addition, Northwestern ranked 315th in rebounding percentage – the frequency with which the team snares O-boards, not the total number – and 289th in defensive rebound percentage.

Another stat that exists independently of the fewer-possessions clause is rebound margin, and NU doesn't do so hot there either. Last season, NU was No. 308 in rebound margin at -4.9. And in 2008, Northwestern was the worst rebound margin team in the nation at -10.8.

But the three-pointers are a constant. And they can help negate other weaknesses. Or exacerbate them.

A look at Northwestern's 2008-09 schedule and box scores verifies the importance of threes. On the season, NU shot 38.6 percent from downtown. Again, that was No. 23* in the nation and easily the best mark in the Big Ten.

* Really, it's even better than 23. It's harder to distinguish what is a "big-time" college basketball team than it is with college football. In football, you can look at the BCS conferences and maybe add a few outliers – you know, TCU, Boise State, Utah. You can pretty easily see who the "big-time" teams are. In basketball though, with nearly three times as many Division I schools, it's more subjective.

However, Purple Reign figures that Northwestern was No. 7 in the nation out of "big-time" teams. Because coming in ahead of NU were squads like Portland State, North Dakota State, Cornell, Green Bay, Eastern Kentucky, IPFW, New Mexico State, and so on. Sure, NDSU made the tourney, and IPFW was a bully in the Horizon League. But it was a short list of legit teams ahead of NU: Cal, UCLA, Notre Dame, Gonzaga, North Carolina and Arizona. Basically, NU was one of the TRULY elite three-point teams last season.

But things didn't go well when the Cats failed to hit that 38.6 mark. In 11 of the team's 14 losses, the Wildcats failed to match their 38.6 percent season average. And in just three of those losses did they best their average of 8.2 threes per game, which is something they did in 10 of their 17 wins. On the year, NU hit just 33.7 percent of its threes in losses.

Naturally, things were different in the team's wins.

* No less than seven times did NU hit at least 50 percent of its three in wins; it hit 50 percent in just one loss, an 8-of-16 performance against Purdue.

* NU beat five tournament teams last season: Florida State, Minnesota, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. In those five games, NU shot 50 percent from downtown in three of them (and a staggering 61.5 percent against – 8-of-13 – against Wisconsin). All told, in NU's five tourney-team wins, the Cats shot 46-of-104, or 46.2 percent.

* There were only four 08-09 wins in which NU shot below its season average of 38.6 percent. And when you consider that two of those four were against Texas A&M Corpus Christi (23.8 percent) and UC Riverside (20 percent) – two clear-the-bench wins that came by a combined 34 points – you realize that the team didn't beat much of anyone without eclipsing the 38.5 percent mark.

* NU averaged 8.2 threes per game on the season, and in 10 of the 17 wins the Cats eclipsed that mark. Even more interestingly, the Cats won only one conference tilt in which they hit eight or less, and that was the wild 8-for-13 game against Wisconsin. So basically, there were no conference wins in which the Cats didn't (a) get their 8.2 three or (b) shoot at least 60 percent from distance. (On this same token, in only four losses did the team get its 8.2 threes.)

The following is a graphic way to look at the importance of threes to NU's success. This first chart breaks down NU's wins. You will notice that there aren't any wins over reputable teams in which NU shot poorly from downtown. The final column turns out to be especially telling – whether or not NU met the season average of 8.2 threes/whether or not it met the season average of 38.6 percent. You'll see that those two were a recipe for success. And scroll down a bit, to the losses chart, and see what that column reveals. (You can probably guess…)

Opponent Made Threes Att. Threes Percentage 8.2 Made 3s / 38.6 %
Central Ark. 8 16 50 No/Yes
Tex. A&M Corp. Christi 5 21 23.8 No/No
Brown 14 24 58.3 Yes/Yes
UC Riverside 4 20 20 No/No
Florida St.* 9 17 52.9 Yes/Yes
DePaul 8 20 40 No/Yes
UMKC 11 26 42.3 Yes/Yes
SMU 7 18 38.9 No/Yes
Minnesota* 9 21 42.9 Yes/Yes
Mich. State* 9 28 32.1 Yes/No
Indiana 12 23 52.2 Yes/Yes
Wisconsin* 8 13 61.5 No/Yes
Chicago St. 12 27 44.4 Yes/Yes
Ohio State* 13 25 52 Yes/Yes
Indiana 9 16 56.3 Yes/Yes
Iowa 9 24 37.5 Yes/No

* Denotes tournament team

Opponent Made Threes Att. Threes Percentage 8.2 Made 3s / 38.6 %
Butler 8 17 47.1 No/Yes
Stanford 6 16 37.7 No/No
Penn State 8 25 32 No/No
Michigan State 9 29 31 Yes/No
Wisconsin 3 17 17.6 No/No
Purdue 8 16 50 No/Yes
Michigan 10 27 37 Yes/No
Iowa 7 26 26.9 No/No
Illinois 8 22 36.3 No/No
Michigan 4 17 23.5 No/No
Minnesota 6 19 31.6 No/No
Ohio State 9 27 33 Yes/No
Minnesota 8 25 32 No/No
Tulsa 9 23 39 Yes/Yes

What's the point of all of this? Well, three-point shooting is one of the truly telltale stats for Northwestern – both the number of threes that the Cats can and the efficiency with which they shoot. Only twice all season did NU hit their season average of 38.6 percent from downtown and still lose. And only four times all season did NU nail at least eight threes (8.2 to be exact) and still lose. In 2008-09 – and likely again in 2009-10 – these are truly magic numbers when it comes to predicting NU's success.

And it works both ways. Save some early-season blowouts of some sub-par competition – wins that came by 42, 18, 16 and 27 points and allowed for some bench players to play significant minutes – the Wildcats shot well from downtown in all of their wins.

And they had to. Because the Cats can't own other areas, like rebounds, like they do the three-point shot. To be fair, NU does really well in some other stats too. For example, the Cats were No. 10 in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio last season and No. 13 in turnover margin.

Thing is, though, that the turnover stats didn't betray them in losses like the threes did. In the FSU win, NU won the turnover battle 22-13. Pretty good, yeah? But in its loss to Purdue, NU won the turnover battle 22-8. Later in the season, in its victory over Purdue, NU again won the turnover battle, but only by a 9-7 margin. In the OSU win, the Cats had 10 turnovers to OSU's 15. In the Michigan loss, NU had 11 giveaways to Michigan's 17. So that stat lies – at least more than the three-pointers.

And that's why the long-ball will be probably be incredibly important this season, just as last. Save Moore, it's primarily the same squad; it's not like the Cats are going to stop gunning.

And there is no doubt that threes will continue to be a cause of the team's successes – and struggles – throughout the season.

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