When it comes to early season predictions, there are always near consensus picks, picks that everyone goes along with (but make little sense) and random outliers that typically raise eyebrows. Those outliers, though, tend to be few and far between when it comes to the national media as most writers check their bias at the door and aren't aiming for shock value or being different just because. That being said, there are writers and analysts that will from time to time hold opinions that stray from the path for one reason or another.
That brings us to BTN's Jon Crispin. The former Penn State / UCLA basketball player posted his preseason rankings and it definitely was an unexpected list as Crispin listed Northwestern at eighth, ahead of both Michigan and Ohio State:
Nope, this is not a typo. Chris Collins and his bunch expects to win, and I can’t find a reason to disagree. Tre Demps helps bring out the best of the highly touted Vic Law and get used to hearing the Wildcat students chant (Alex) "Olah!" Northwestern should look to pick up momentum heading into Big Ten play with a manageable non-conference schedule.
While the decision to rank the Wildcats above both the Wolverines and Buckeyes differs considerably from the masses, the reality is it's not the craziest decision or projection (even if it turns out to be wrong at the end of the day). For whatever reason, Ohio State is heading into the 2015-16 without much hype or fanfare. You could make the case that this is the end result of two underwhelming seasons and the loss of NBA lottery pick D'Angelo Russell, but head coach Thad Matta has been consistently successful in Columbus and there's little reason to anticipate a drop off this season. Say what you will about Ohio State, the team returns Jae'Sean Tate and Marc Loving, while also adding the 11th best recruiting class in the nation (which also happens to be the top in the Big Ten).
That being said, though, the media and Big Ten fans haven't seen as much the last two years and will likely not buy into Ohio State until they start showing some results. That makes it interesting that these are the same people going all in for the Wolverines, a team that will only make the projected leap to the top of the conference if everyone returning makes a considerable improvement in 2015-16. We can talk about injuries and youth, but when the team was healthy early on they were still bad and it's up in the air if their young players were actually improving or if their increase in production was the end result of increased playing time and usage (thanks to a mass amount of injuries slowing down the teams star players).
So on paper you can make a case for both Ohio State and Michigan to be so-so in 2015-16, making the notion of Northwestern finishing above both teams not exactly crazy talk. And it's not like Northwestern is a bad team, with a young up-and-coming head coach in Chris Collins and plenty of returning talent. Sure, Alex Olah, Vic Law and Bryant McIntosh aren't household names and a lot of Big Ten fans likely pay little attention to the trio, but there's more than enough talent and skill to create a solid core for the Wildcats. Mix in senior Tre Demps, coming off of his best season last year, and an intriguing recruiting class that includes potential sleepers in Aaron Falzon and Jordan Ash, and you have a Northwestern team that could actually be pretty good.
The question is can Northwestern finally piece it together. Under Bill Carmody the Wildcats were notorious for having enough talent to make it to the postseason before finding ways to blow it time and time again. As much potential as Northwestern has, the question is what Wildcats team will we get? The Wildcats once again have an easy non-conference schedule, but it leaves little room for error and puts pressure to win quality games in the Big Ten. For a team that dropped games last year to teams like Georgia Tech and Central Michigan, taking care of business is a must. Looking back at their conference slate last year, the ten game losing streak early on would go on to define their season. That streak also included six back-to-back single digit losses, four of which came against NCAA Tournament teams. Will we see that Wildcats team or will we see the program that finished the regular season with a 5-2 record, including wins against Iowa and Indiana.
Bringing us back to the idea of Northwestern finishing above Michigan and Ohio State. Is that opinion in the rare minority? Yes. Is that prediction going to come true? Most likely no. The honest truth, though, is that the talent in Evanston is finally good enough that Northwestern should start trending upwards. Look no further than Purdue last season and Nebraska the year before, if the Wildcats can get hot at the right time this winter then they could easily finish in the middle of the conference and surprise a ton of people (maybe even get to the postseason, or at least the NIT). But if they start dropping games to Virginia Tech, DePaul and Nebraska...it honestly wouldn't surprise many people, either.
So will Northwestern finish ahead of the Wolverines and Buckeyes? It's not crazy talk and is certainly a possibility, but Northwestern has been so snake bitten over the years that it's hard to buy into the team until Chris Collins and company finally start to show some results from the team's recent improvements.