With eight games left in regular season play, Northwestern needs some life in order to make the NCAA Tournament. It's a long shot, but there are games are on the schedule that could give NU the opportunity to finally go dancing. And this post is me backing up my fatalistic determination that it will happen with some semblance of a basketball argument.
Northwestern has played well in three straight games: two victories and a two-point loss to Purdue, and the three games have a common theme. In each game, injuries forced a short-handed Northwestern team to play some of the game with a lineup featuring no center. Luka Mirkovic, one of NU's two centers, is hurt, and rather than play Davide Curletti 40 minutes, Bill Carmody has opted to send out lineups featuring John Shurna as the team's smallest player. I think this is Northwestern's unit best equipped for basketball success, and although it's a demerit to Carmody's coaching that it took him until nearly halfway through Big Ten play to go small, it's a credit to him that he appears to be interested in running with it.
I hate ragging on student-athletes, especially a pair of guys who have worked hard in the program for four years, but the play of Mirkovic and Curletti leaves much to be desired. For the first three years of Luka Mirkovic's career, he looked to be developing into a passable Northwestern center. His stats - in terms of points, rebounds, and advanced stats in efficiency tracked by Kenpom - generally trended upwards from his freshman to his junior year. This year, they've almost all regressed: injuries have seen him play less, and his jumpshot, which used to provide a fairly decent outlet as Mirkovic forced defenders to follow him beyond the arc by hitting 40 percent of his threes, has absolutely vanished, as he is 0-for-10 on the year. While Curletti was never as big a factor for Northwestern as Mirkovic, he also looked to be coming along for NU. The Kenpom breakdown of their last two seasons is simply brutal:The pair both dropped drastically in offensive rating (Mirk fell from 112.5 to 99.2, Curletti from 115.9 to 98.1). Mirkovic's block rate and offensive rebound rates have both been cut roughly in half (3.2 to 1.5 in blocks, 10.0 to 5.3 in offensive rebounds) while Curletti, who had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio last year, now has a 20.4 turnover rating. Both players have seen their free throw percentage fall exactly 15 points - Mirk from 66 to 51, Curletti from 77 to 62.
I assumed Curletti, sparked a crucial home upset of No. 7 Michigan State with 17 points and a huge three and dished out eight assists against Nebraska would be the better player, but statistically, Mirk has had the better year. He trails Mirkovic in offensive rating, eFG%, TS%, defensive rebounding %, assist and turnover rates (as in: less assists, more turnovers), and fouls committed per 40 minutes. Basically, the only things he's better at are blocking shots and shooting - but even so, he's not a great shot-blocker and shoots 26 percent from three.
Suffice it to say, NU's senior centers' seasons are not up to par. And keep in mind, those stats barely even take into account the defensive side of the ball, where both struggle against most Big Ten centers. I think it's at the point where Northwestern is doing itself a disservice by giving their centers minutes over more productive smaller players.
However, the lack of size obviously gives Northwestern a disadvantage. The question you have to ask is: does the offensive benefit of removing a center and inserting a more talented shorter player outweigh the problems the newfound lack of height creates, both defensively (when guarding opposing centers) and on the boards?
I think the answer is a resounding yes. First off, Northwestern wasn't terrible defensively against Leonard. Well, yes, Northwestern was terrible, he had 21 points on 12 shots. But NU opted to play the 1-3-1 zone against Illinois instead of man, meaning Leonard wasn't individually matched up against anybody. Most possessions saw him fronted by one defender - the "center" in the 1-3-1 - while the weakside defender prevented him from getting the lob. Although not having a true big man makes the initial fronting defender slightly shorter, it's still relatively difficult to enter a pass to the center in the 1-3-1, as he's often essentially drawing a double team without the ball. There are ways to get him the ball, and Illinois was obviously effective there: several possessions with good ball movement left Leonard practically unguarded, and a skip pass almost immediately after crossing halfcourt before the 1-3-1 has really set got NU twice that I counted (it's technically not a skip pass if it's going from halfcourt to the basket, but it's the only way I can think to describe a pass over a zone defense). In these situations, it would have helped to have a bigger player there to contest Leonard's shot. But knowing Curletti and Mirkovic's defensive talents, thinking about the numerous turnovers made on entry passes or three-second violations, I don't think the sacrifice of having a smaller player in the middle of the zone is as drastic as one might think.
But more important is the offensive game. The smaller lineup allows NU to spread the floor by putting five guys on the floor capable of making threes as opposed to just four. All three games have seen NU shoot well from three - 8-for-20, 14-for-31, 8-for-21. While not having a center to guard the opposing center creates a mismatch, so too does having a center tasked with guarding a small forward. Meyers Leonard spent yesterday's first half assigned to Reggie Hearn. 16 points on 6-for-6 shooting is a small, impossible to maintain sample size, but still: Hearn took Leonard to the hoop for an easy bucket one time and drilled four threes when given ample space by Leonard on other plays. And this was from Reggie Hearn, a former walk-on who was a 6-foot-4 power forward in high school - other teams might choose to put their center on someone who has been more consistently dangerous and pay the price there.
In summary: Northwestern has played small out of necessity, with one of two centers hurt. But they should continue to play that way because in all honesty, it's the way they'll most likely be most effective. Then again, Bill Carmody's best strategy might just be "have John Shurna hit all of the shots", which, you know, works.