11 September 2014

On 2014-15 Expectations

With the football team's disappointing 0-2 start to the 2014 season many NU fans have already turned their attention to the men's basketball team.  NU finished last season on a 2-8 stretch for a 14-19 record overall and a 7-13 conference record (including 1-1 in the B1G Tournament).  Given this context to outside observers it reeks of desperation for fans to ponder the upcoming season's prospects more than two months in advance.  And there is at least some truth to that observation.

But there's more to it than that.  This will be CCC's sophomore season and it is only natural for fans to be intrigued by the uncharted waters yet to be navigated by their team's greenhorn captain.  Add into the mix heightened uncertainty about this year's team that returns just six players as well as a hyped recruiting class (by NU standards) and it becomes clear that there are other non-football-related reasons for interest in the upcoming season.

The enthusiasm exhibited by many NU fans for this coming season is perhaps best encapsulated in this recent Inside NU article.  The three reasons given are: 1) it's not football, 2) the freshmen, and 3) "things are trending upward".  The first reason is self-explanatory.  We've already cautioned against the second reason in an earlier post.  In this post, we'd like to dig a little more into the third reason.

Here's Inside NU's explanation for this third reason for optimism:

"NU won six games in Big Ten play last year, which was only a slight improvement from the four they managed in 2012-13 under Bill Carmody. But it's the quality — not the number — of wins that show Northwestern is improving under Chris Collins. Between Jan. 12 and Feb. 1, the 'Cats went 5-2 in Big Ten play with a win over then-No. 23 Illinois, a takedown of Indiana at historic Assembly Hall and an upset over Final Four-bound Wisconsin."

The first and most obvious point we'd like to make is that the comparison being made is to just one season.  Not only is one season a poor basis for comparison even under the best of circumstances.  But to use an anomalous season such as 2012-13 that was beleaguered by a rash of injuries as a benchmark is outright laughable.  

Still we were curious about how much truth underlies the strength of wins argument that is being put forth.  Undoubtedly that win at Madison was spectacular.  The win over Illinois was nice.  And winning at Indiana is always a good thing.  But were these really that much better than the prior season? 

Using kenpom stats as we always do on this blog, we evaluated the three best wins from last year and the prior year:

#6 Wisconsin (A)
#48 Minnesota (A)
#49 Illinois (H)
#34.3 Average
(Note: Indiana was #67)

#26 Minnesota (H)
#29 Baylor (A)
#39 Illinois (A)
#31.3 Average

While the 2012-13 season ("2013" in kenpom-speak)  didn't have the equivalent big splash win, that team also won twice on the road, and the three best wins on average were better than last year.  To us that doesn't demonstrate an upward trend.

Given the aforementioned weaknesses of the benchmark comparison we figured to stretch the comparison back five years to see if any trends emerged.

The 2014 season's 34.3 average is similar to 2011 and 2012 but it is well above 2010 and especially 2009.  Furthermore this chart shows that the win at Madison wasn't exactly unprecedented.  In 2012 NU beat #3 MSU and in 2009 NU also beat #6 MSU but that time in East Lansing.  CCC may have shown he could figure out the riddle that is Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, but on the contrary he has yet to show the ability to out-coach a clearly more talented Izzo-led squad.

Furthermore we aren't convinced that how a team fares against just top notch competition is the best basis for projecting trends.  To get over the NCAAs hump NU will need to show the ability to not only pull off a big upset or two but also back-fill the resume with quality wins.  Hence, we've looked at the historical trends against the kenpom top 25, top 50, and top 100:

Taking these three charts altogether one may conclude a modest upward trend if one insists on restricting the comparison to just 2013.  When one stretches the comparison back five years the trend doesn't look so optimistic to us.

All that said this trend analysis is way too premature.  CCC deserves and will get his five years.  We hope that the freshmen live up to the hype and that CCC continues to fill out the roster with B1G-quality depth.  And we hope that over time the optimism shown at Inside NU and at other parts will prove to be warranted.  To us it really is too early to say one way or the other.

And as for our thoughts on what to expect for 2014-15?  We wish we could join the seeming majority of NU fandom that believes NU will be improved over last year.  We think it's far too early to make such a prediction (ask us again in January).  If everything were to go right this year (no injuries, a couple of the frosh live up to the hype) then we would agree that NU will be improved.  But this is NU basketball after all where nothing ever goes to plan.

From what we've seen so far from NU fans expectations there is an under-appreciation for how good Drew Crawford was on offense and on defense.  Plus as always happens no one is building into expectations any personnel losses which simply isn't realistic (has Cobb -- NU's indisputable best player this year -- ever played a whole season?).   Lastly people are putting too high expectations on these freshman.