Northwestern made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2017, ending one of the longest droughts in the sport, and now the Wildcats are poised to potentially make the tournament for the second time in five years. Northwestern briefly held sole possession of first place in the Big Ten after it defeated Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State to start Big Ten play.
Here's an analysis of what Northwestern has done well so far this season — and why the Wildcats could return to the Big Dance.
A huge jump in 3-point success
Last season, Northwestern made a dismal 31.2 percent of its 3-point attempts, which ranked 279th nationally and fell roughly two percentage points below the national average. The Wildcats saw their 3-point percentage marginally improve in conference play to 32.1 percent, which actually ranked sixth in the Big Ten, as the conference generally struggled to make shots from deep.
What a difference one year can make. Through Jan. 1, Northwestern ranks ninth nationally with a 42.4 3-point percentage, which is more than nine percentage points above the national average. The Wildcats have actually shot slightly better against conference opponents than non-conference opponents, as their 3-point percentage in Big Ten play is 42 percent, which is good for second.
Three players are primarily responsible for the team's success from outside: Miller Kopp, Boo Buie and Ty Berry. Each has made at least 10 3-pointers and also made at least 40 percent of his attempts. Kopp ranks 15th nationally with a 57.6 3-point percentage (19-for-33), Buie is 17-for-38 (44.7%) and Berry is 13-for-28 (43.8%).
Tempo, tempo, tempo
Faster doesn't always equal better, but Northwestern's pace has seen a noticeable increase, especially offensively. The Wildcats' average offensive possession lasts 15.2 seconds (29th-fastest nationally), which is 2.4 seconds faster than last season, when it ranked 210th in offensive tempo. For what it's worth, prior to this season, the second-shortest average offensive possession length for Northwestern in the history of kenpom.com's database (2010-present for this metric) was in 2017, when the Wildcats made the NCAA tournament.
For a team that has made more than 40 percent of its 3-pointers, takes great care of the ball (15.5 offensive turnover percentage) and ranks third nationally in assist percentage (68.7 percent of its baskets are assisted), a faster tempo offensively might be to the benefit of this current group.
Strong 3-point defense
As we mentioned, Northwestern is making more than 40 percent of its 3-pointers this season, but it's also holding opponents to a 29.5 3-point percentage, which is the Wildcats's best mark in kenpom.com's database that dates back to 1997 for that metric. When Northwestern made the NCAA tournament in 2017, the Wildcats had an elite 3-point defense, limiting opponents to 29.3-percent shooting from deep, which ranked eighth nationally.
3-pointers make up a similar percentage of Northwestern's and its opponents' shots (39.8 percent compared to 39 percent), so if the Wildcats are shooting roughly 12 percent better than their opponents from outside, that could translate to two or three more 3s, on average.
Balance between offense and defense
For as long as it took Northwestern to make the NCAA tournament, it's not as if the Wildcats weren't capable of having a really strong offense or defense. But they were never great on both ends at the same time, much less clearly above average on offense and defense in the same season.
Under Kevin O'Neill, Northwestern's adjusted defensive efficiency ranked 18th in the country, but its offense lagged behind at 129th. Three years later under the direction of Bill Carmody, the defense was 21st but the offense was ranked No. 215.
Toward the end of Carmody's tenure, Northwestern started to find its groove offensively — No. 30 in 2010, No. 15 in 2011 and No. 16 in 2012 — but the team's defense was ranked outside of the top 150 nationally every year.
When the Wildcats finally made the NCAA tournament in 2017, their offensive efficiency ranked 59th nationally, while the defense was 32nd. Through Jan. 1, Northwestern's offense/defense breakdown is No. 56 and No. 50, respectively, so while the Wildcats aren't necessarily elite on either end of the floor, they don't have a weak link, either.
Strong defensive rebounding
Historically speaking, Northwestern has never been a strong rebounding group. This century, Northwestern's offensive rebounding percentage has been ranked in the 300s nationally 15 times, including this season. In terms of defensive rebounding percentage, the Wildcats have been ranked in the 300s in six different seasons since 2000.
But this season, Northwestern has limited its opponents to an offensive rebounding percentage of just 24.5 percent, which is the 68th-best mark in the country, as of Jan. 2. While the Wildcats' defense isn't known for forcing a lot of turnovers or blocking a high percentage of shots, the team's ability to limit their opponents' second-chance opportunities is part of their strength defensively.