Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, November 10, 2005
What now for Northwestern? (A "Princeton defense"?)
Today I continue my alphabetically sensitive preseason walk-arounds of each Big Ten team with some thoughts on the erudite, urbane, and apparently rebounding-averse young men from Evanston, IL, proud members of the Big Ten since its founding in 1896....

Last year
15-16 overall, 6-10 in conference.

Vedran Vukusic (16.8 PPG, 1.18 PPWS, 7.6 reb. pct., 4.2 assists per 100 possessions)
Mike Thompson (10.2 PPG, 0.95 PPWS, 11.6 reb. pct., 4.3 a/100 poss.)
Mohamed Hachad (8.6 PPG, 1.03 PPWS, 10.9 reb. pct., 3.5 a/100 poss.)
Tim Doyle (4.6 PPG, 0.94 PPWS, 9.4 reb. pct., 6.5 a/100 poss.)
Michael Jenkins (4.5 PPG, 1.13 PPWS, 6.4 reb. pct., 4.9 a/100 poss.)
Vince Scott (3.7 PPG, 1.09 PPWS, 8.0 reb. pct., 6.1 a/100 poss.)
Evan Seacat (1.7 PPG)

Bernard Cote (6-8 F, transfer from Kentucky--six min. per game in 2003-04)
Sterling Williams (6-4 G, redshirt freshman)
Jean-Marc Melchior (6-6 F, Luxembourg)
Craig Moore (6-4 G, Doylestown, PA)
Patrick Houlihan (6-5 F, Rockville Center, NY)
Justin Hoeveler (6-0 G, transfer from The Branson School, CA)

T.J. Parker (9.7 PPG, 1.06 PPWS, 4.2 reb. pct., 4.4 a/100 poss.)
Davor Duvancic (6.5 PPG, 1.05 PPWS, 9.9 reb. pct. 5.8 a/100 poss.)
Brandon Lee (1.6 PPG)

Official motto for 2005-06
"Yes, but our fans vent their anguish way more eloquently than Penn State's."

What we think we know in November
Last week I looked at the Indiana Hoosiers and offered the thought that in theory IU could improve this season if they merely keep everything the same as it was last year--except for their defensive rebounding, which needs to at least rise to the level of the conference average.

Northwestern's kind of like that in my eyes--only in NU's case this situation has been doubled. On each side of the ball last year, the Wildcats suffered from a single discrete debilitating weakness that negated some very solid performance elsewhere on the floor.

Let's start on defense for that is where the Wildcats were mildest in 2005....

Lots of steals + no missed shots from your opponent = no rebounds
The good news for Northwestern this year is they’re coming off a season in which they demonstrated that they possess a vital skill--and possess it to a greater degree than all but one other team in the conference….

Opponent TO pct. (all stats 2005, conference games only)
1. Minnesota (24.4)
2. Northwestern (23.6)
3. Illinois (22.7)
4. Indiana (21.5)
5. Iowa (21.2)
6. Michigan State (21.0)
7. Michigan (20.9)
8. Ohio State (20.6)
9. Purdue (18.0)
10. Penn State (16.8)
11. Wisconsin (16.7)

In other words, last year the Wildcats were surprisingly and indeed strikingly successful at getting their opponents to turn the ball over. Preventing the other team from attempting field goals should be a solid, if not perfect, predictor of your overall performance on defense (as indicated by the only team above NU on this particular metric: Minnesota had the best defense in the Big Ten last year). But the Wildcats were an exception to this rule.

Because of this:

Field goal defense (opponent effective FG pct.)
1. Minnesota (47.3)
2. Ohio State (48.0)
3. Iowa (48.2)
4. Indiana (48.4)
5. Wisconsin (49.1)
6. Illinois (49.6)
7. Michigan State (49.7)
8. Purdue (51.0)
9. Michigan (52.1)
10. Penn State (56.1)
11. Northwestern (56.5)

Keep in mind Illinois had an eFG pct. of 56.7 last year. So basically, in terms of shooting from the field, the Wildcats transformed every opponent into Illinois for a night.

This woeful field goal defense was enough to make Northwestern the worst non-Penn-State defense in the conference--indeed, one of the worst defenses in the major-conference basketball. (Last year only eight "power"-conference teams posted a defensive efficiency number as bad as or worse than the Wildcats' in their respective conference seasons: Tulane, Colorado, Rutgers, Auburn, Virginia, Southern Miss., Penn State, and Baylor. That is not the company you want to keep.)

For Northwestern fans, the disturbing thought here is that even though they were getting tons of turnovers from their opponents, the Wildcat D was still awful. Improving the defense will mean holding on to the one facet that's in good shape (creating TOs) while upgrading everything else.

So first things first: can Bill Carmody's team get that many turnovers again this year? You bet! Or, if not that many, at least an above-average number. And don't let anyone tell you the now-departed T.J. Parker "led the team in steals" last season. In tempo-free terms the most felonious Wildcats looked like this in 2005:

Northwestern: steals per 100 individual possessions
(2005, all games)
1. Michael Jenkins (4.0)
2. Mohamed Hachad (3.2)
3. T.J. Parker (2.9)
4. Tim Doyle (2.6)
5. Vince Scott (2.5)

So assume for the sake of discussion that NU again gets their opponents to cough up lots of TOs. The question then becomes: can they play better field goal defense? Again, I'm bullish here, if only because last year's performance would be well nigh impossible to duplicate in all its aberrant ineptness. The Wildcats will put a team on the floor this season that is both experienced and, save only Jenkins, long: there's no reason they can't swim comfortably in the conference mainstream where field goal defense is concerned.

BONUS deja vu!
Now let's look at the offense.

The good news for Northwestern this year is they’re coming off a season in which they demonstrated that they possess a vital skill--and possess it to a greater degree than does any other team in the conference that didn’t go to the Final Four….

Field goal offense (effective FG pct.)
1. Illinois (56.7)
2. Michigan State (55.1)
3. Northwestern (54.4)
4. Indiana (52.0)
5. Wisconsin (51.5)
6. Ohio State (50.1)
7. Iowa (49.4)
8. Michigan (49.0)
9. Purdue (48.2)
10. Minnesota (45.5)
11. Penn State (44.2)

In other words, last year Northwestern shot the ball extremely well. Good shooting should be the single best predictor of a good offense (as indicated by the two teams above NU on this particular metric). But the Wildcats were the exception that proves the rule.

Because of this:

Offensive rebounding pct.
1. Michigan State (40.5)
2. Iowa (38.0)
3. Purdue (37.6)
4. Minnesota (36.1)
5. Penn State (35.2)
6. Illinois (34.8)
7. Michigan (33.7)
8. Wisconsin (33.1)
9. Indiana (33.0)
10. Ohio State (26.4)
11. Northwestern (22.8)

Their abysmal--nay, historically inept--offensive rebounding was more than enough to drag the Wildcats’ offense down to eighth in the conference--incredible, really, given how well they shot the ball.

As for this year, expect Northwestern's offensive rebounding to improve--but not by much. The Wildcats are what I call a POT (perimeter-oriented team): by virtue of the many threes they shoot they are virtually preordained to be below-average on the offensive glass. At the same time it's also true that last year Northwestern suffered the drawbacks of being a POT without enjoying one of the primary advantages: a low turnover rate. Instead the Wildcats were actually pretty generous in giving the ball away.

The agenda for the 2006 Northwestern offense, then, is as follows: continued good shooting, incremental improvement in the offensive rebounding, cut way down on the turnovers.

BONUS retrospective Edvard-Munch-level horror!
With each team featuring what we now know to have been one of the worst defenses in major college basketball, Northwestern and Virginia actually played each other last year in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and the result was a shield-the-children's-eyes 48-44 victory for the Cavaliers.

Ye gods: just 92 total points with two empirically inept defenses on the floor? (In a game that was pretty slow, granted, but, still, with 60 possessions was about as "fast" as your average Indiana Big Ten game.) Man, how bad were the offenses that night?

(EXCLUSIVE expert answer informed by years of systematic hoops analysis: pretty goll dern bad!)

Is Vedran Vukusic underrated?
Here's a guy averaging almost 17 a game (which is saying something at the pace they play in Evanston) and he's doing it efficiently--yet we never hear about him. Why is that?

Maybe because the presumption in the Big Ten is that if you're 6-8 you're going to rebound a little and Vukusic does not oblige said presumption. (Then again, boards are hard to come by when 47 percent of your shot attempts are threes). Still, I respectfully commend Vukusic to your attention: he most ably fills the role the Princeton-influenced Carmody has set out for him. He is that "go-to scorer" that hoops pundits seem to seek so earnestly (as demonstrated most vividly when his scoring in the final minutes got the Iowa game to the point where Michael Jenkins could win it in OT last year in Evanston).

Is Mike Thompson overrated?
No, but he was a year ago--the CW has since corrected. If Vukusic earns demerits for being 6-8 and not rebounding, surely Thompson earns double super secret probationary ones for being 6-10 and not hitting the boards. (Fact: Ohio State's J.J. Sullinger was a better rebounder than Thompson last year. Sullinger, a guard, is listed at 6-5.)

Plus he's a 46.8 percent free throw shooter. And he turns the ball over a lot. It's too much to expect a season-to-season 180 in all these areas, surely, but a guy listed at 6-10 250 should be able to help Northwestern a little in its two areas of need: field goal defense and offensive rebounding. This is what I'll watch for from Thompson this year.

Is Mohamed Hachad really still here?
Good grief, I swear I remember Hachad playing alongside Shon Morris. In any event, the NCAA vouches for his eligibility, so....

As seen above, one of Hachad's most important roles is to gather in turnovers from the opponent. Moreover, he's a surprisingly feisty rebounder for a 6-4 guard.

One opportunity for improvement is Hachad's shot selection: true, he attempted only 64 threes last year but for a 23.4 percent three-point shooter that's 64 too many.

Meet the playmakers: Doyle and Scott (?)
In Carmody's Princeton-ish system the assists come most frequently (speaking tempo-freely here) from the likes of Tim Doyle (6-5) and Vince Scott (6-10). They find Vukusic and get him the ball.

Doyle had a simply horrific year shooting the ball but, to his credit, he seemed to realize it and limited his attempts accordingly.

No longer a walk-on
As of this season Michael Jenkins is on scholarship but Carmody has told Jenkins he wants him to keep playing like a walk-on. Jenkins, of course, hit the game-winner against Iowa in Evanston last year. He's listed at 5-9 and even that may be generous--but, as seen above, he creates havoc for the opposing guards and hits 44.0 percent of his threes. That, sports fans, is worthy of a scholarship.

Kentucky transfer Bernard Cote is reputed to be a skilled 6-8 small-forward type. On most Big Ten teams he'd be a novelty. In Evanston he's one of the gang.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Jr., signed letters of intent yesterday to play at Ohio State, however, Oden and Conley have the option of playing elsewhere without losing a year of eligibility if the Buckeyes are not cleared for participation in the 2007 NCAA Tournament. (Recruits David Lighty and Daequan Cook also signed letters yesterday with this same option.) The Buckeyes are still facing sanctions stemming from the Jim O'Brien's tenure in Columbus. Oden is the only player besides LeBron James ever to be named national POY as a high school junior.

Raymar Morgan, Isaiah Dahlman, and Tom Herzog signed letters of intent to play at Michigan State yesterday.

DeShawn Sims and K'len Morris signed letters on intent to play at Michigan yesterday....Schembechler Hall blogger Joey says Tommy Amaker's really nice--and therein the problem:

All I ever read about Tommy Amaker is how nice he is, how he knows how to win because of his pedigree, and how hard he is working to bring back Michigan basketball. Well, guess what? That's all great stuff, and Amaker is the basketball coach I'd most want if I were organizing that one event Steve Martin used to talk about, the one with all the kids around the world holding hands and singing. Bob Knight would not be right for that. But if I had to win a basketball game, I'd call Knight hours before I called Amaker.

Trevon Hughes, Jason Bohannon, and J.P. Gavinski signed letters of intent to play at Wisconsin yesterday. (BONUS semiotic note! Here in my adopted upper midwest, recruits wear sensibly snug woolen caps.)

Chris Kramer, Johnathan Uchendu, and Dan Vandervieren signed letters of intent to play at Purdue yesterday.

Illinois beat Quincy 78-52 in an exhibition game in Champaign last night. Dee Brown had 15 points and James Augustine added 14 for the Illini, who turned the ball over 20 times. Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs that freshman Charles Jackson may be too good for the redshirt we all assumed he'd don this year. Bruce Weber sounds like he's not so sure: "C.J. plays better in games and scrimmages than he does in practice." (Recaps here and here; box score.)...Brian Carlwell and Richard Semrau signed letters of intent with the Illini yesterday.

(Note to all Wonk's crotchety Abe Simpson-esque Bah!-Stats-are-the-devil's-work! readers: Weber counts possessions too. "We had 13 turnovers in the first half and on 14 possessions we didn't get a shot off," he said last night. "Do that on the road in the season and you'll be down 20.")

Indiana big man D.J. White is out for six weeks with a broken foot and indefatigable Hoosier beat writer Terry Hutchens says this is Sean Kline's time to shine. Kline's been named the starter in White's absence by Mike Davis. Hutchens has also posted the latest update to his excellent Ask the Expert Q&A feature in the Indianapolis Star. The Hoosiers will play an exhibition in Bloomington against the University of Indianapolis tonight. (Hoosier recruiting update here.)

Iowa beat Wartburg 75-48 in an exhibition game in Iowa City last night. Greg Brunner had 16 points and Doug Thomas added 14 off the bench for the Hawkeyes. (Recaps here and here; box score.)...There's a "hoops trinity" in the state of Iowa? Why wasn't I told? All we can say for sure is that one-third of said trinity, Hawkeye guard Jeff Horner, looked less than thrilled at the photo shoot.

David Jackson and Andrew Jones signed letters of intent to play at Penn State yesterday.

Minnesota will play an exhibition against Minnesota-Duluth in Minneapolis tonight and Gopher coach Dan Monson says he's going to play his starters for longer stretches in the hope that they can get into a regular season-like offensive rhythm. Which assumes they ever got into an offensive rhythm last year (hi-yo!)--see yesterday's walk-around of the Gophers for this blogger's thoughts.

Frank Burlison of has posted his Big Ten preview. His projected top four: Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio State.

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Don't just mutter ineffectually;
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The return of pert questioner William!
Longtime readers of this blog, which traces its origins back to the Paige Laurie era or Triassic period or both, may remember a "Wonk back" kerfuffle triggered last season by alert reader and pert emailer William (who said in February he was getting pretty tired of Illinois being compared to John Wooden-variety UCLA teams).

He's back, cognitively slotting last year's Illini for posterity's sake:


Maybe Illinois wasn't quite at that exceptional level of the Walton and Alcindor-led squads, but last year's Illini were pretty damn good, perhaps better than I thought at mid-season last year. I would still compare them to the 1997 Kansas team, for both the level of accomplishment and the verve that both squads had, each losing only 2 games in the last seconds.

Last year's Illini were certainly much better than the MSU team that won the title a few years back, but unfortunately, that is the luck of the draw, as MSU did not have to face a team that had four of the first 14 players selected in the draft. Illinois will eventually win a championship, but I doubt that there will be another season for the Illini as magical as last year's.

William L.

Thanks, William!

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