The Minnesota Golden Gophers and Northwestern Wildcats will won’t resolve any age-old debates on Saturday in The Barn, but they will provide plenty of fodder for those who like to argue if offense or defense is more important in college basketball.  The Gophers have the worst defense in the Big Ten, and Northwestern’s offense is historically inept. We won’t find out if defense wins championships on Saturday, but we may find out if a resistable force (Minnesota’s defense) can defeat a movable object (the Wildcat offense).

Detailing Northwestern’s horrible offense is an exercise of statistical misery. In conference play, Northwestern’s offense ranks 11th or 12th in three of  the four factors that decide a basketball game (shooting, rebounding, and getting to the free-throw line) and is 7th in avoiding turnovers. In conference play they score only .848 points per possession, far behind the .923 points per possession Illinois’ 11th ranked offense scores. On the season, the Wildcat offense ranks 316th in the country, sandwiched  between Ball State and Southern University. That is quite the departure from Northwestern who was typically decent on offense, but a consistently bad team because they had no interest in playing defense.

Northwestern might have the most impressive defense in the conference this season. It isn’t the best ranking 5th in the conference and 10th nationally, but the improvement with essentially the same roster is shocking. Last season the Wildcat defense ranked 134th in the country. Their previous best defensive season was in 2005, when they ranked 56th in the country, and that was still only 10th out of 11 Big Ten teams. Meanwhile, the Gophers have the least impressive defense in the conference. They are the worst in points allowed per possession, by a lot. This is especially disconcerting considering that Richard Pitino had vowed to impose his will on the conference with pressing and trapping. Pitino is a young coach and certainly doesn’t have players meant to press and trap. He’ll get those player eventually, or adapt his strategy. Right now, his main goal should be to get the Gopher defense, closer to average, or roughly where the Wildcat defense is.

There is more than one way to skin a cat, and Chris Collins and Richard Pitino have approached defense very differently in their short time as Big Ten coaches. While Pitino has focused his efforts on turnovers, Collins has flipped the “Make Shots” slogan of the Northwestern student section t-shirts. His defense doesn’t let them make shots. With help from Stat Sheet and Ken Pomeroy’s excellent site, I broke down the defensive statistics for the Gophers and Wildcats, to show how each would perform in an average game. While the statistics are of the back of a napkin variety thanks to rounding (I’ve yet to  witness two-tenths of a steal in a game), I think they do a pretty good job of showing how each defense works. These number reflect what would occur on average in a 65 possession game (the Big Ten average). All statistics account for how a possession ends except for second chances, which of course are the middle of a possession, at the earliest.

Minnesota Northwestern
Turnovers 10 10
Steals 7 4
Free Throw Attempts 13 9
Made 2 pt FG 16 17
Missed 2 pt FG 18 22
Made 3 pt FG 7 5
Missed 3 pt FG 12 14
Second Chances 11 12
Defensive Rebounds 23 26
Stops 33 36

The goal of defense, obviously, is to stop opponents from scoring. There are three ways to stop an opponent from scoring. They can force a turnover via steal, offensive foul, or a shot clock violation. They can also force a missed shot and get a defensive rebound. Allowing trips to the free-throw line or made baskets, whether on the first, second, or third try, are to be avoided.

Richard Pitino has claimed he pays attention to advanced statistics, and Chris Collins claims he doesn’t even try to follow statistics of any kind. Their defensive strategies would suggest the opposite. What Collins seems to grasp, and that Pitino might not, is that turnovers occur relatively rarely, even for teams that cause a lot of turnovers. Ohio State forces the most turnovers in the Big Ten, on 21.3% of possessions.  Wisconsin forces the fewest turnovers in the conference on 14.2% of possessions. Because turnovers are such a small part of defense, especially in conference with good ball handlers like the Big Ten, forcing turnovers isn’t a particularly good predictor of defensive success. Ohio State’s turnovers only account for four more stops per 65 possession than Wisconsin’s defense, which has no interest in forcing turnovers. Those four extra possessions with a turnover account for only 6% of the game on the defensive end of the court. Collins’ defense focuses on the rest of the game, when opponents don’t give the ball away, and yet Northwestern forces turnovers just as often as the Gophers.

Minnesota’s defense is bad even when it costs turnovers, and is even worse when it doesn’t force turnovers, which is most of the time. We already looked at how easily opponents have been scoring against the Gopher press. That analysis focused only on made baskets. It didn’t even look at fouling, yet another negative consequence of an overly aggressive defense. Minnesota opponents go to the free-throw line on 13 possessions per game, and the Gophers allow more free-throw attempts than any other Big Ten team, again by a large margin. Those are free-points, simply given away. All that fouling also puts Gopher players on the bench. Because the Wildcat’s aren’t as aggressively pursuing turnovers (though forcing them just as often) they send their opponents to the free-throw line on only nine possessions each game. Fouling, or lack there of, gives Northwestern four extra opportunities for stops in an average Big Ten game.

Most defensive possessions involve a shot attempt by the offensive team. Northwestern’s field goal defense is the best in the Big Ten, while the Gophers rank eighth. The Wildcats allow four more field goal attempts than the Gophers per game because they foul less. They force bad shots though, especially from the three-point line. Northwestern’s opponents scored six fewer points per game behind the three-point line than the Gophers, and only two points more than Minnesota inside the three-point line, despite those four extra field goal attempts. Forcing a missed shot is only the first step in a successful defensive possession. The defense needs to get the ball back. The Wildcats allow one more second chance opportunity than the Gophers, again because their opponents attempt more field goals. However, this is hardly detrimental to their defensive success because they force all those bad shots.

Defense is all about stops, and Northwestern simply does a better job of stopping their opponents from scoring. Despite Minnesota’s horrible defense, they are only three stops per game short of matching Northwestern’s pretty good defense. Three stops doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is more than enough to decide the fate of a game, or the season. Three stops would have given the Gophers wins against Michigan and Nebraska, and probably would have allowed the Gophers to beat Michigan State in overtime. Three stops would have been enough for Iowa to beat Michigan State and Wisconsin, and might have been enough for them to be undefeated, since their biggest losing margin was eight points. Every stop counts.

The good news is that the Gopher defense is fixable, which is not something I was expecting before I started this project. The easiest fix is to foul less often. If the Gophers allowed only the sixth most free-throws, like Northwestern, they’d be out of the defensive cellar. If the Gophers could give up one fewer lay-up, get an extra defensive rebound, and allow one fewer three-pointer per game, the defense might actually be good.

During Richard Pitino’s press conference today, he mentioned that his team is working on transition defense and avoiding fouling. If those two areas can get squared away, the defense will improve. They only need stops on an extra 4% of possessions. There is little room for error in a conference as good as the Big Ten, and if the Gophers defense doesn’t improve, there will be another nerve-wracking selection Sunday a month from now.