We’re chugging right along with our Big Ten Basketball previews for the 2016-17 season. See Penn State, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, and Rutgers...if you dare. Let’s hop to it with the Big Ten’s favorite band of lovable losers, the Northwestern Wildcats.
Coach: Chris Collins (4th year)
2015-16 Record: 20-12 (8-10), KP #68
Key Departures: Alex Olah (C), Tre Demps (G), Joey Van Zegeren (C)
Additions: Isiah Brown (G, fr); Rapolas Ivanauskas (F, fr); Tino Malnati [YES THAT MALNATI]; Barret Benson (C, fr)
Alex Olah and Tre Demps are gone, and that’s a lot for the ‘Cats to replace in 2016-17, considering the leadership, minutes, and stats those two put up. With redshirt sophomore Vic Law returning from injury and Bryant McIntosh continuing to be the best at being that annoying point guard, the ‘Cats should be able to avoid missing a beat in the backcourt.
In the frontcourt, however, it’s time for Dererk Pardon to mature into the go-to center the ‘Cats have always flirted with but never truly had since Evan Eschmeyer. That’s a lot to ask from the sophomore, but given that he’s backed up by a freshman in Barret Benson and joined by "power forward" (a term I use lightly) "glue guy" Sanjay Lumpkin, the ‘Cats could struggle on the glass and in the defensive paint in 2016-17. Gavin Skelly will come off the bench and give his best go at white boy energy, but unless he has found the offensive tools to succeed, the ‘Cats will struggle to find much scoring inside without Pardon.
Look for freshman Barret Benson to make the biggest impact of any of the Northwestern freshmen. With forward Rapolas Ivanauskas out for the year rehabbing a shoulder injury, the ‘Cats will likely only run Benson and maybe guard Isiah Brown. Northwestern’s lineup is slowly becoming longer in the tooth (only wing Nathan Taphorn and Lumpkin are seniors), and that experience will hopefully help Benson grow into a capable center.
Under Collins the ‘Cats have taken on his desired look—a team with a lot of athletic-looking wings who can slash and get to the basket. Aaron Falzon, Scottie Lindsey, and Vic Law are all long wings who can knock down the outside three but also take you off the dribble to the basket, and as Collins’ pick-and-roll-based offense becomes an entrenched part of Northwestern’s play, those athletes will make or break the season.
MNW’s Expected Starting Lineup: McIntosh, Lindsey, Law, Lumpkin, Pardon
AdjO: 105.4 (63rd)
AdjD: 95.1 (67th)
AdjT: 67.5 (346th)
Overall: 10.35 (61st)
The ‘Cats are finally—FINALLY—playing a schedule that says "Hey, we’d like to play in the postseason!" After an abysmal 2015-16 non-conference slate in which Northwestern got zero big wins (but suffered zero super-damaging losses), the ‘Cats head to New York to take on Texas followed by Notre Dame or Colorado, then also visit Butler for the Gavitt Games and host Wake Forest in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge before taking on Dayton at the United Center. There are wins to be had in the non-conference for the Wildcats.
Doubling up on games with Rutgers, Illinois, Nebraska, Indiana, and Purdue, the ‘Cats have a very, very good chance to make some noise in conference play. Avoiding home-and-homes with the biggest dogs in the conference could be fruitful for the ‘Cats. Four of their first six games being on the road is a tough test, making an early home date with Iowa of the utmost importance. If Northwestern is to break out of the miasma of mediocre at the lower-bottom of the conference, that’s a game you have to win.
Ultimately, if the ‘Cats come out of the non-conference with 3 losses or fewer, look out, because until they lose in horrific fashion at Rutgers, you’re going to hear talk that this is The Year. The pieces on the schedule are starting to reflect the idea that Northwestern wants to be a big-time team in the Dance, and if the ‘Cats make some noise, breathing will get awfully heavy in Evanston.
So is this The Year?
Under Chris Collins, Northwestern has embraced a Rodney Dangerfield approach to Big Ten play. Just listen to Tre Demps’ comments after some close calls didn’t go the Wildcats’ way during the Big Ten Tournament:
"Yeah, there’s this thing called politics. They want the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer, that’s just reality. You got to stand up and keep fighting. And eventually I know this program and eventually I know this program will get to a place where we will get those benefit calls. That’s just the reality of the world we live in, in all aspects, basketball, economics, race, whatever."
Politics aside, Demps’ comments encapsulate many of Northwestern fans’ and players’ greatest frustrations—this teams walks itself right up to the line, then if they shoot themselves in the foot, someone else pulls out the gun and does it for them.
Do I agree with all of that? No. I have a hard time blaming refs for a terrible schedule in 2015-16, blaming the schedule for absolutely choking in 2011-12, and so on. But at some point Northwestern is going to have to hoist itself over the line and into the Dance, outside forces be damned.
When it comes down to it, Northwestern is going to need career seasons from Vic Law, Bryant McIntosh, and Dererk Pardon to actually get themselves up and over the line. By all metrics Kenpom expects the ‘Cats to improve (but slow down, somehow) on offense and defense in 2016-17, stuffing the paint and playing lock-down defense. But can they outscore people? Can they control the glass? The departure of a guard with ice-water in his veins (Demps) and a steady-if-average rock on the inside (Olah) means that the ‘Cats will either need to make up a ton of production out of those positions or look elsewhere for it. With the return of Vic Law and the emphasis on wing play, it looks like the ‘Cats are looking elsewhere. That’ll have to be enough.
So this isn’t The Year, but there should still be postseason hopes. Losing only Taphorn and Lumpkin this year means that it’s the long game once again for the ‘Cats, but an NIT run would go a long way to setting Northwestern up nicely for 2017-18. McIntosh will continue to be a stud at PG, and if he’s improved his outside look ever so slightly, he’s going to be one of the best in the Big Ten. But even just as a distributor and off the dribble, BMac is going to keep the ‘Cats in games in 2016-17 and take them there in 2017-18.
Then again, I made a deal with my Cubs fan friend that if they get to win the World Series, we get to go Dancing. So stay tuned.
Apparently I am going Homersota on the ‘Cats in 2016-17. Fuck all y’all, we’re going to the NIT. [SHUT UP I HEAR HOW THAT SOUNDS]