27 October 2011

Hope for NCAAs-worthy defense in 2011-12?

For a couple of years now close observers of Northwestern basketball have noted that defensive woes have held this team back from that elusive first NCAAs bid.  Despite lip service from Coach Carmody to a newly found focus on defense at the onset of the 2010-11 campaign there wasn’t much visible improvement on that front last year.  Or was there?

On the surface all one needs to do is look at NU’s statistics to understand why folks have their knickers in a twist over the defense.  NU’s defensive efficiency in conference -- the best benchmark for comparing NU to its peers -- was tied for last in the Big Ten with Indiana.  That leads many to the logical if simplistic conclusion that it’s more of the same when it comes to NU’s defensive woes.

However, when you dig more deeply there are glimmers of hope for improved defensive performance during this year’s campaign.  The chart below analyzes NU’s 2010-11 B1G and NIT results from a defensive efficiency perspective. The data plotted show NU’s game-by-game point per possession (PPP) defensive performances adjusted for differences in the competition’s offense.  This adjustment is important and necessary if one is to truly evaluate NU’s defensive performance as it allows for comparison across games.
To explain how we’ve adjusted the PPP data, it’s easiest to use NU’s first B1G game at Purdue to illustrate the calculations.  In that game NU had a defensive PPP of 1.26.  That means for every Purdue possession, the Boilermakers scored on average 1.26 points.  Purdue had an average offense PPP of 1.12 during the 2010-11 B1G campaign.  Thus, NU’s defensive PPP in the game at Purdue was 0.14 PPP worse than what Purdue’s average conference opponent yielded to the Boilers (i.e, the difference between 1.12 and 1.26).  The data point for this game on the chart is -0.14 (we use the more intuitive negative value for the difference since NU’s defense was worse than the average B1G defense in this game). Clear as mud? 

The solid line plots NU’s defensive PPP performance over the B1G and NIT games.  Simply put, anytime the line crosses above the 0.0 “Mendoza” line, then NU’s defense fared comparatively well.  Anytime the line is below 0.0, then NU’s defense fared comparatively poorly. Most of the data points on the chart are below 0.0 which comes as no surprise.  NU’s defense last season was subpar no matter how you slice and dice it.  In only 5 of 20 conference games did NU’s defense perform relatively well (@MSU, Michigan, Minnesota during the regular season, and in both tournament games).  Furthermore, NU’s peak performance was in the final regular season game against Minnesota in which NU only held the Gophers 0.1 points below their normal offensive efficiency.  In contrast, NU’s worst defensive performance came on “Chicago-Wisconsin Showdown Weekend" when the Badgers scored 0.37 points more per possession than average for them.  That, friends, is one U-G-L-Y statistic.

However this story is not all doom and gloom as hinted in our intro to this article.  The dotted line shows the trend line in NU’s defensive performance.  Notice that the line is decisively positive and even reached the 0.0 line once NU’s final NIT game loss at the Wazzu’s was factored into the analysis. 

This trend, friends, gives us hope that the defense was in fact improving during 2010-11.  Frankly we are not surprised by this trend as it matches our instinctive reaction to NU’s defensive performances during the latter part of the season.  Perhaps this was the case of NU priming the defense pump starting in the preseason practices, and the defensive juices finally started flowing in March.  Certainly the statistics support this hypothesis.

Another factor to consider when projecting this year’s defensive performance is the fact that NU’s lineup will be without NU’s diminutive MVP, Juice Thompson.  We love Juice, and we hate to throw him under the bus, but it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that he was a defensive liability given his height disadvantage.  Anyone who does not believe this to be the case will have to explain to us a more logical explanation for why Carmody would default to a gambling 1-3-1 defense which compromised defensive integrity in the corners as well as rebounding if it weren’t to minimize Juice’s defensive liability.  (you can save your breath Carmody detractors, it is not more logical to posit that Carmody has no clue about coaching defense or defensive strategy -- while Carmody is an offensive minded coach he is no fool and understands that defense is half of the game as well).  Let’s face it – the B1G was a guard dominated league last year, and Juice would likely have been eaten alive in man defense by his taller and offensively gifted defensive assignment.

One last tidbit -- Carmody does need to learn how defend the swing offense.  Those defensive performances against Wisconsin (circled in Wisconsin Red -- or is it blood red?) leave MUCH to be desired.  Hopefully Coach Hill will have some input on this front.