The first year of the Chris Collins era at Northwestern saw glimpses of the type of program the former Duke player/assistant aspires to build. The Wildcats rebounded from a lackluster 7-6 non-conference showing and a 0-3 start to Big Ten play by winning 5 of their next 7 games, including road wins at Indiana, Minnesota and Final Four participant Wisconsin.
Ultimately, a lack of depth – and talent – was too much for Collins and his staff to overcome. But with All-Big Ten Drew Crawford the only significant loss from the roster and a 5-man recruiting class widely considered the best in the program’s history, things are looking up in Evanston. Here are 5 Bold Predictions for Northwestern Basketball 2014-15.
#1 – Alex Olah will make 2nd team All Big Ten.
Olah saw significant improvement in his sophomore season with Collins and his staff, particularly former NBA assistant Brian James. The 7’0", 270-pound center had increases in minutes played (22.2 in 2012-13 to 29.5), field goal percentage (41.5 % to 50.9 %), free throw % (58.3% to 68%), rebounds (4.1 to 5.2) and blocked shots (28 to 58).
His play down the closing stretch of the season, where he averaged over 12 points a game, showed the potential that he possesses. With a more talented supporting cast surrounding him and a serviceable backup in Yale transfer Jeremiah Kreisburg to give him a blow now and then, watch for Olah to become one of the top inside players in the Big Ten.
#2 – Vic Law will make the Big Ten All-Freshman team.
The 6’7", 185-pound Law gives the Wildcat the perfect replacement for the departed Crawford. He likely won’t score as much (15.7 ppg), but his length, explosiveness and overall skills could make for a lock-down defender Collins covets. He could potentially guard four positions, which would help continue the defensive mindset that saw the Wildcats rank 3rd in field goal percentage defense (41%) in the Big Ten. He is the most versatile player that Northwestern has.
#3 – Bryant McIntosh will finish in the Top 5 of the Big Ten in assists.
As important as Law’s contributions are to this season’s success for Northwestern, McIntosh is the one that provides the key element to making it all work for the Wildcats: steady direction from the guard position. Too often last season the offensive flow of Northwestern resembled sub-zero molasses, with 3rd year guard Dave Sobolewski being relegated to the bench after struggling to perform. JerShon Cobb and Tre Demps filled in at the point, which took away from their ability to contribute as scorers. McIntosh allows both to play at positions where they can be more productive offensively, gives the Wildcats a player who knows how to execute in late–game situations (his high school team won back-to-back state titles in Indiana), and is a threat himself offensively to keep opposing defenses honest.
#4 – Northwestern will win 20 games and have a winning record in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats struggled out of the gate last year and were barely above .500 heading into conference play. With an easier non-conference slate that has nine of 13 games at Welsh-Ryan and only two true road games, it possible to see the Wildcats come into its game at Rutgers December 31st with only 1 or 2 losses. And while Wisconsin and Nebraska look to be the class of the conference and Rutgers clearly in the cellar, the spots in between aren’t conclusively set in stone. Here’s saying Northwestern will finish 9-9 (or better) in the conference, which should lead to . . . .
#5 – Northwestern will make the NCAA Tournament
Many look for the Wildcats to be a year away, possibly two, from finally getting an invitation to the Big Dance. Pundits point to the amount of youth that will be relied upon, that the loss of the do-everything Crawford will be too big an obstacle to overcome.
But consider this: Northwestern was at one time in 4th place in the Big Ten last winter after its win at Minnesota. Even with the loss of Crawford, they retain everyone else who were major contributors. There has been a full year for the players to adjust to Collins’ system, and they have better overall talent and, even more important, depth.
The attitude in Evanston is to win now. And this is the year they finally get over the hump.