Need-based assistance

With Kevin Coble out, the Cats knew they'd have to share the ball to thrive. So that's exactly what they've done. The Wildcats rank among the nation's leaders in every conceivable assist category, and they rode that sharing spirit to a Chicago Invitational Challenge title this weekend. Purple Reign looks a little closer at the prolific assist numbers.

As Purple Reign discussed the other day – after Drew Crawford went off for a game- and career-high 22 points – it seems like a different player is leading the offensive charge every night.

John Shurna notched a career-high 25 points himself Friday night as Northwestern downed No. 23 Notre Dame in the Chicago Invitational Challenge, and he again led the team with 23 in Saturday's tourney-clinching win over Iowa State. Shurna hadn't, however, led the Cats in scoring in any of the other four games. So he is simply the most recent Cat to step up and shoulder the scoring responsibilities. Four different Wildcats have led the team in scoring through six games – a pleasant trend considering the team's reigning scoring leader, Kevin Coble, was lost for the season before the season even started.

So yeah, the scoring has been spread around. The four-different-leading-scorers stat is one of the most telling, and most important, stats of this young season. And it helps explain how, despite the ugly loss to Butler, Northwestern is – all things considered – looking pretty darn good.

But surely part of the reason that the scoring load has been so successfully and seamlessly spread around is because, well, the ball is getting spread around. A lot. Just look at the numbers: Four different Wildcats average at least two assists per game, and three average more than three. To put that in perspective, only 18 players in the entire Big Ten average at least three assists per game, and NU has three of them. What's more, NU is in the top 31 in the nation in every meaningful assist category: assists (ranked No. 24), assists per game (No. 31), assist-to-turnover ratio (No. 18) and, most importantly, assist percentage (No. 3).

Let's start with assist percentage, because, again, Purple Reign thinks that is the most telling stat here. NU, after all, plays a pretty deliberate brand of basketball, and gauging the Wildcats merely by the sum of their assist totals isn't reflective of how well they actually share the ball. For instance, NU ranks No. 334 in the country in possessions per game. Now, it's not like that's a bad thing; it's just the way that the Cats play. But it does mean that the raw assist number isn't nearly as instructive as the assist percentage, which measures what percent of your field goals are assisted.

Measuring NU by the number of assists – and not the assist percentage – would be like comparing the strike out total of a closing pitcher in baseball to a starter. Quite simply, a closer won't pitch as many innings as a starter – and thus can't tally as many strike outs, even if their strike out rate (K/9 IP) is actually higher.

Well, NU's offense – per style – is like that closer; it simply doesn't see as many possessions as other teams. Thus, there is no way that the Cats can get as many assists.

But what the Cats can do is get assists on the possessions they have. And that's what's happened all season. NU ranks No. 3 in the nation in assist percentage, recording an assist on 76.1 percent of its field goals. So on three our of every four buckets that NU makes – slightly more, actually – there is someone getting credit for an assist. (Northwestern hasn't had a game all season in which its assist percentage has been lower than its opponent's.)

But even with NU's relative dearth of numbers of possessions, the Cats are still No. 31 in the nation is assists per game, with 17. They got exactly 17 against Notre Dame, and 17 once more in the Chicago Invitational title game against ISU. And again, that number is deflated because NU doesn't get as many possessions as, say, a run-and-gun outfit that is more focused on pushing the ball than caring for the ball.

Which brings us to assist-to-turnover ratio, a hallmark of Bill Carmody's teams. Two seasons ago, NU was No. 3 in the country with an A-to-T ratio of 1.43. And that was a team that went 8-22. And last season NU was again among the nation's best, ending the season at No. 10 in all of college basketball with 1.36 assists to every turnover. Not much has changed this season. NU has a 1.48 A-to-T ratio, which ranks No.18 in all the land. This weekend, the Cats had a staggering 34 assists to just 17 turnovers, including a 17-to-5 performance against Notre Dame.

The aforementioned scoring parity may taper off just a bit. As Shurna has shown the past few games, he is probably the team's most potent and reliable scorer, and it would neither surprise nor displease anyone if he settles into the role of the team's leading scorer. Jeremy Nash and Drew Crawford – who have each notched 20-point efforts this season – will continue to score, but they will probably not often lead the team in scoring. So the different-guy-each-night thing may slow down.

But these assist numbers probably won't. Not with Coble out, not with Carmody's style, not with this current personnel. There aren't a bunch of one-on-one, ankle-breaking scorers on this team. What there are, though, are a bunch of guys who are more than able to can shots when they get it in a position to score.

When, that is, someone gives them an assist. Which hasn't been a problem.

To reach Purple Reign, please write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com. Thanks.


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