Northwestern Preview: Let's Not Mess This Up

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

These Purple Kittens are bad at basketball.

I was all set to use this space as my own personal comedy act and relentlessly belittle the horrible basketball program Illinois faces Sunday night. But my mood altered substantially after the embarrassment of Wednesday's loss, and I'll have to save those jokes for later.

Simply put, Northwestern (KenPom No. 171) is bad. It's the worst team in the Big Ten by a significant margin and might claim the vaunted title of worst team in a high-major conference along with the likes of TCU (No. 204) and Rutgers (No. 200).

Most of that bad basketball crops up on the offensive end, which slides in at 287th in college basketball according to KenPom (out of 351 teams). That's inexcusable offensive production from a mid-major standpoint, much less a Big Ten team. Former head coach Bill Carmody's Princeton offense has been replaced by head coach and former Duke assistant Chris Collins' pick and roll offense.

Actually, it's a lot of standing around while two players engage in a pick and roll action. This is problematic because outside of sixth man Tre Demps, none of the Kitties guards are quick, good ballhandlers, or productive slashers. None of the guards or wings are shooting above 50 percent on two-point attempts, and they're not adept at drawing contact during those drives to the hoop, either.

And when guards aren't productive in the pick and roll, you guessed it, 3-point shooting suffers. If the ballhandler can't get past his defender, the other defenders won't sag off the other offensive players roaming on the perimeter. This leads to highly contested 3-point jumpers that don't go in. The loser in all of this: Dave Sobolewski, who's shooting an arid 17.2 percent from 3-point range. That's right. He's attempted 64 3-pointers and made 11 of them.

Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb are nice players that would be good second or third offensive options on other teams. But carrying the load on this Northwestern has drained their efficiency, though they both hit a respectable percentage of 3-pointers. Northwestern's center Alex Olah has a great field goal percentage (57.7 percent) but rarely gets the ball with the other ballhandlers inability to pass out of the pick and roll.

At least Northwestern brings some competence to the defensive end in what seems to be a point of emphasis from Collins. Carmody's teams on defense generally were below average, but Collins's Duke pedigree brings extra attention to detail on that end. And it's allowed them to hang around in the first halves against Michigan and Iowa in conference play and even Missouri in the non-conference. Northwestern's offense can't keep up in the second halves of these games, however, and the rout is on quickly.

I'll circle this around to Carmody's firing after last season and the performance thus far of his replacement, Collins. Carmody probably underachieved at Northwestern in his 13 seasons in Evanston, unable to reach the NCAA Tournament and never finishing above .500 in a Big Ten season. There was ample reasoning to can him. But Collins comes from the Coach K coaching tree, which has notoriously produced suboptimal coaches like Jeff Capel and Quinn Snyder. We won't find out Collins's true coaching colors until Year 3 or Year 4, when some of his recruits are allowed to grow into upperclassmen maturity. But will he bolt for the Duke job once Coach K (66 years old) retires, before Year 3 or Year 4? If you're Northwestern, you had to switch it up, but I'm not sure if Collins was the best candidate to revive the program.

But, I digress. For Illinois, this game should serve as an attempt to right the defense after ceding 95 points to Wisconsin. For a team that claims defense as its strong suit, that was a putrid performance. Illinois has been excellent in defending the pick and roll this season, and it should shoot to hold the Kitties in the 50's for this game if they want to prove the defensive performance against the Badgers was an aberration.

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