EVANSTON – There may not be too many two-game stretches this college basketball season in which a team has a greater disparity in its performance and final outcome from one game to the next than Northwestern had in its first two games.
In its season opener, Northwestern hosted Division I-newcomer Merrimack, which lost to Maine by 20 points in its own season opener one year after the Black Bears won just five games, and Merrimack left Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena with a 10-point win on Friday night. The Warriors picked up a high-major road win in their first-ever attempt as a DI school — a game in which kenpom.com gave them just a five percent chance of victory prior to tip-off.
Then Wednesday night, Northwestern hosted Providence, which was picked fourth in the Big East preseason poll and ranked No. 19 nationally on kenpom.com at tip-off, and the Wildcats won 72-63 in a game in which they led by as many as 20 points.
We’ll see where Northwestern’s first two opponents finish the season — Merrimack jumped roughly 30 spots on kenpom.com after beating Northwestern and Providence fell 10 spots after the loss — but we could look back and see that the Wildcats lost to one of the 50 worst teams in the sport by 10 points before beating one of the 20 best by nine on the same floor five days later.
“Obviously this was a huge win for us,” Northwestern Coach Chris Collins said. “That’s probably the understatement of the year.”
“It was a tough opener, and I think everybody’s seeing now across the country that that happens.”
The season isn’t even two weeks old and we’ve already seen Kentucky beat No. 1 Michigan State by seven points on a neutral floor on the opening Tuesday, then the next Tuesday lose at home to Evansville, which was picked eighth in the Missouri Valley preseason poll.
In its season opener, Pittsburgh beat Florida State, which beat then-No. 6 Florida by 12 points on the road four days later, only for the Panthers to lose by five points to Nicholls State, then No. 273 on kenpom.com, later in the week.
Saint Mary’s beat a top-50 Wisconsin team on a neutral floor in South Dakota in its first game, only to lose at home to Winthrop (then No. 195 on kenpom.com) in its next one.
So Northwestern isn’t alone in its extreme game-to-game swings early in the season, although, it only took one look at Collins or his players after the game to see how much of a difference it makes in having the letdown game come before the big win. The Wildcats were so jubilant after the game, jumping up and down and hugging each other at midcourt after the final buzzer sounded, that they missed the start of the post-game handshake line.
“These are college kids that have tough nights sometimes,” Collins said, “and we spent a lot of time with each other after that (Merrimack) game and just kind of let the air out of the balloon with relaxing each other. I thought we were really tight in our first game because everybody wants to do so well and they’re young kids that, you know, really haven’t done much at this level.
“I mean, how many of the guys out there have really accomplished a lot? That’s what’s fun about this group, watching them do stuff like this, and I knew we were going to do much better, I knew we were going to play hard. I knew we were going to play with a lot of fight, but I didn’t know if that would mean winning cause I know how good Providence is and is going to be.”
If you lined up all the players from both teams and picked teams recess-style, Providence would probably have the first two picks and maybe something like four of the first six.
If you showed someone a few cherry-picked stats from the box score, you would’ve asked how many points Providence won by.
The Friars attempted 72 shots to the Wildcats’ 47. Providence rebounded 20 of its missed shots while Northwestern grabbed only eight offensive rebounds. The Wildcats turned the ball over 20 times and the Friars took 35 threes.
“It shows the power of effort,” Collins said, later continuing, “sometimes analytics don’t tell the whole story, boys. Sometimes there’s a whole thing called heart.”
The single biggest coaching decision that impacted the game was Northwestern’s commitment to play zone, something that we could potentially see more of across the sport this season as offensive efficiency has noticeably declined because of the new 3-point line. The Wildcats played a 2-3 zone where the wing defenders on the back line were so aggressive in defending the wing that it often looked like a 3-2 zone, and they later switched to a 1-3-1 zone.
Amid a comeback attempt in the second half, Providence went to its own 2-3 zone.
Unfortunately for Providence Head Coach Ed Cooley and the Friars, they were the unsuspecting victims of Northwestern’s new defensive look.
“Look, we hadn’t played it at all so you get a little bit of an ambush attack in the first game because they didn’t prepare for it,” Collins said.
From an analytical perspective, Providence got efficient looks. Stadium charted every shot that Providence took and just nine of its 72 shots weren’t in the paint or behind the 3-point line.
Ironically, if the Friars were as efficient at the rim (8-of-23 on layups) or from distance (8-of-35 on threes) as they were in the midrange (4-of-9 on shots outside the paint but inside the 3-point arc), they could’ve won by double digits.
“We had a lot of matchup problems if we were going to guard them man-to-man,” Collins said, “and we just felt like the zones might give us a chance to keep them off-balance. You got to give up something and we were going to give up some open looks from three because we knew how physical they were, and it’s just kind of incredible.”
Collins looked at the post-game stat sheet and let out a small laugh as he cited his team’s 20 turnovers, 20 offensive rebounds surrendered and 25 fewer shot attempts in a nine-point win.
At risk of oversimplifying the sport, basketball comes down to making shots, and in large part because of a new defensive look thrown at an unsuspecting opponent, Northwestern was able to do so more efficiently than its opponent, which is why Evanston, Illinois — like Lexington, Kentucky, Gainesville, Florida and Moraga, California — was home to one of the more surprising variances in game-to-game outcomes in non-conference play, as players and coaches alike adjust not only to new rosters but an extended 3-point line.