The Rise of the Northwestern Wildcats

In the past two weeks, there has been a remarkable change in Evanston, Illinois. Northwestern’s basketball team, for the majority of the season, has been a walk-over for the rest of the Big Ten conference. To start 2015, the Wildcats went on a 10-game Big Ten losing streak, and going into their game vs Iowa at home, they were ranked #154 in KenPom’s rankings and were completely irrelevant. However, Northwestern has now won four games in a row, beating Iowa at home, Minnesota on the road, then Penn State and Indiana at home. Beating two probable tournament teams in Minnesota and Indiana would be impressive for any low-ranked team, but looking deeper into these four wins shows that the Northwestern squad has done something more incredible.

ESPN’s BPI is a stat that assigns a grade from 0-100 for how well the team performed in a game. This rating uses strength of opponent, margin of victory, and home or away, to measure how well each team played. Kentucky leads the NCAA this year, to nobody’s surprise, averaging a score of 95 in their games, and each team in the top 5 (Kentucky, Virginia, Gonzaga, Wisconsin, and Arizona) all have average game scores over 90. So, the idea would be that any game rating above a 90 for a team in an individual game would mean that the team played at the level of a top 5 team.

In Northwestern’s 4-game win streak, they have had an ESPN BPI game rating over 90 in each game. Even though this is a very small sample size, it is extremely telling because in all of the Power conferences, there are only 14 teams that have had four straight games with a BPI game rating over 90. Only two of those 14 teams are not in the current AP Top 25 – Michigan State and Northwestern. Northwestern’s incredible four games has also been shown by a massive rise in KenPom rating as well, going all the way from 154th to 98th.

So, the biggest question here is why? Why has Northwestern gone from one of the worst teams in the Power Conferences to a team that can compete with any team in the nation? One way of thinking about this is that the Wildcats have gotten very lucky, and have just played extremely well while the other teams were having an off-night. However, there are two big reasons that may suggest that Northwestern’s recent success can continue over a longer run.

Before the game vs Iowa, Northwestern switched to a 2-3 zone, instead of the man to man they had been running the majority of the year. One of the biggest issues with Northwestern’s defense this year has been an inability to create steals and force turnovers. The Cats were last in the NCAA in steal % before switching to the 2-3 zone. The zone has allowed open shots at times, but it’s also forced pressure on the opposing offenses and the Wildcats have gotten the steals they had been lacking. Against Penn State, Northwestern forced 9 steals, and vs. Minnesota they had 6 steals. This helped the squad hold Penn State to just .68 points per possession.

The second key difference in these four games has been the progression of Vic Law. Law, a freshman and Northwestern’s highest-rated recruit ever, has struggled with Big Ten level play for the majority of the year. To date, his offensive efficiency is 95.5, which is below average. However, over the past three games, Vic Law has had three career games. His offensive efficiencies over these three games have been 181, 122, and 145. Law has helped increase the Cats’ offensive efficiency to a new level, with Northwestern scoring over 1.20 points per possession in each game in the win streak. With a more efficient offense and changes to the defensive strategy, it might be possible for the Cats to make a run in the Big 10 tournament and push for an automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament.

by Robert Garcia, Northwestern University

Note: This is Robert’s last article for CornerThree, as he’ll be moving over to sports analytics site numberFire. Thanks, Robert, for your year-long contribution to CornerThree! You can find Robert’s new material here.