Northwestern’s version of the Princeton Offense is designed to take advantage of the players it has. That has typically been a bunch of shooters who do not have a ton of athleticism. Yes, the Wildcats play at a bit of a talent disadvantage every time the team steps onto the floor. That is a given.
What the Princeton Offense that Bill Carmody has employed these last 12 seasons has been a recognition of that disadvantage. Northwestern could never give the ball to one player and let him try to break down a defense — particularly in the rough and tumble Big Ten.
The offense demands precision and efficiency. It demands the team working and running and moving constantly to push and pull the defense out of position. When the offense is run well, it is a model of efficiency and the beauty of what team basketball can be.
The Wildcats have survived on it when the talent gap would have been too wide to cross. Obviously when the talent was much closer in the last few years, the rigors of the Princeton seemed to confine Northwestern’s best players. But John Shurna and Michael Thompson found a way to star and get Northwestern to the doorstep. Drew Crawford and Jershon Cobb were to take that role of the “creator” this season. Obviously both are gone now.
Their absence brought the Wildcats back to the days when they needed sharp execution and even more patience. The win over Penn State showed how good things could still be when NU executes with precision and efficiency. The ugly 70-50 loss to Iowa showed how bad it can be if Northwestern loses its patience and gets knocked out of rhythm.
A quick look at the last two games — both against unranked Big Ten opponents — really does show the ends of the spectrum for Northwestern’s offense.
Against the Nittany Lions, the Wildcats posted a 116.7 offensive rating (a measure of points per 100 possessions). This ranks among Northwestern’s best offensive outputs of the year and was NU’s best offensive game (statistically) since the Delaware State game before the team took off for South Padre Island, Texas.
The Iowa game was the exact opposite. Against the Hawkeyes, the Wildcats posted an offensive rating of 76.9, the second worst rating for the season behind only the disappointing loss to UIC.
When Northwestern fails to score efficiently, as these numbers show, the team really really struggles. The Wildcats are ninth in the conference and 127th in the nation with an offensive rating of 102.9. Defensively, Northwestern is 10th in the conference with a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 97.3. These numbers should continue to shift as the competition in the Big Ten gets tougher for NU.
Offensive efficiency has always been key for Northwestern. The offense is designed around the two most efficient shots — layups and 3-pointers — with room for very little in between (perhaps frustratingly to fans). While the Wildcats offense has never been among the tops in the conference, they have been scoring better than a point per possession for the past five years. In fact, if the numbers hold up, the team’s 102.9 offensive rating would be its lowest since the disastrous 2008 season when NU posted a 99.7 offensive rating. Either way, it is clear NU’s offense is trending downward.
It is a small sample size, but the Wildcats’ offensive rating in four Big Ten games is 95.2 compared to 106.1 in non-conference games. That is quite a sizeable decrease (10.3 percent). Why has this happened?
Losing Drew Crawford and relying on Dave Sobolewski, Jared Swopshire and Reggie Hearn to create offense — moving them out of roles they were perhaps more comfortable in and prepared for — could have something to do with that.
Northwestern’s assist numbers have long been a hallmark for the team. Simply, NU assists on the majority of its field goals and keeps its assist-to-turnover ratio in order.
Northwestern has an assist rate of 71.9 percent this year, meaning they have an assist on 71.9 percent of the team’s field goals. That is the highest rate in the nation. That is a good thing if the ball is constantly moving and the offense is scoring. But that is a bad thing when the team is struggling to get the ball into the basket. There is not that one player NU can turn to create offense.
The last three years, Northwestern has posted a 64.8 percent assist rate in 2012 (top in the conference, fifth nationally), a 66.6 percent assist rate in 2011 (top in the conference, fifth nationally), and in 2010 Northwestern had a 71.6 percent assist rate (second nationally and tops in the conference). The last time Northwestern did not lead the Big Ten in assist rate was 2009. And the Cats were third in the nation behind the Hawkeyes in that category in the Big Ten.
NU relies heavily on ball movement to score. Again, this can mean the ball is moving and the team is working together. Or it could mean the ball is stagnating and the offense is not moving because no one can free themselves up to score off the dribble.
This is where the third important element of the offense comes in — assist-to-turnover ratio.
This year, Northwestern has a 1.48 assist-to-turnover ratio. That is a pretty solid number, considering NU is still third in the conference. But the Wildcats play with fewer possessions than say a Michigan, who is ahead of them. This number is down from last year’s 1.58 assist-to-turnover ratio. In 2011, it was a 1.70 assist-to-turnover ratio. Again, Northwestern is generally trending downward.
In 2008, Northwestern posted a 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio, and while that was second-best in the nation, you can see that the low number did not help that team.
In Big Ten play this year, Northwestern has a 1.31 assist-to-turnover ratio. Against Iowa, NU posted a 1.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. That was the same rate the team posted against Minnesota. This will not do as it denotes the Cats’ offense is not efficient at all.
For Northwestern to have any measure of success the rest of this season, the team will need to limit turnovers and score efficiently. That likely means someone has to take over the role of the “star” player and be willing to dominate the ball and look for his own scoring a bit more. Someone has to take over that role.
That kind of “hero ball” is typically viewed as inefficient, but considering how Northwestern is able to others involved for the majority of its offense, having someone defenses have to respect and back off some will be key to freeing up everyone else in the Princeton Offense.
Until then, the ball pressure will continue and the Wildcats will find it difficult to score on most trips down the court.