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2015-16 Northwestern Wildcats Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Northwestern Wildcats and what fans should expect for the program heading into the 2015-16 season.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The ‘2015-16 BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2015-16 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers each team.

There's promise in Evanston as Wildcat fans can once again feel hopeful about Northwestern basketball. Though the Wildcats have unequivocally been the Big Ten's least successful program, the recent upswing on the recruiting trail since the arrival of head coach Chris Collins has made many believe in Northwestern. The on-court results haven't reflected the recruiting success yet, but many believe it's just a matter of time before the team makes the big dance.

Now, with the 2015-16 season on the horizon, it's a crucial time as many believe that Collins finally has a roster in place to compete in the Big Ten and nationally. Though it's unlikely to be a team that can contend for championships or top 25 rankings, with the return of Northwestern's entire starting lineup from last season and another talented incoming recruiting class, there should be enough depth, experience, and talent to win some games.

Of course, with his deepest array of resources since arriving at Northwestern and a fresh new contract extension, expectations are also rising for Collins. The program's recruiting and "energy" may be at its highest points in years, but ultimately, if the Wildcats don't turn that into wins on the court, none of it will matter. Nobody is quite sure where exactly expectations should sit for this year, but it's hard to imagine they lie with the 12-24 conference record Northwestern has had since Collins arrived in 2013.

All told, this combination of factors makes the 2015-16 season particularly important for Northwestern as it could provide a unique viewpoint into the future with Collins at the helm. This is far from a "make or break" year for either Collins or the program, but this is the first season where the program's recruiting upswing could reasonably become a significant factor for the Wildcats on the court.

With that, let's take a look at the Wildcats.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Northwestern Wildcats, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Wildcats, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Inside NU Contributor Jason Dorow breaking down Northwestern's roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

Check Out Basketball Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with BTPowerhouse Podcast on BlogTalkRadio

1. 2014-15 Season Performance

  • Record: 15-17 (6-12)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #118
  • RPI Rating: #124
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Last season was a year of mixed feelings among Wildcats fans. Preseason expectations were not all that great for the team, especially with the loss of Drew Crawford, but fans were still hoping to see some progress. After all, the Wildcats had surprising success in the Big Ten the year before and got a pretty big upset against Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament to end the year.

Northwestern did win a few exciting games last year, but overall, it ended with just a 6-12 season in the Big Ten and no postseason trip. Although the team finished the year with a 5-3 record that included upsets over Indiana and Iowa, non-conference losses to Central Michigan and Georgia Tech and Big Ten teams including Illinois, Nebraska, and Michigan stung significantly. The potential for an NIT bid was there, but the Wildcats just couldn't convert and ended up with another pretty unremarkable season.

In my 2014-15 Big Ten Recapitulation Series, this is what I wrote about Northwestern:

On paper, Northwestern's season is a difficult one to place. The vast majority of experts didn't give the Wildcats much credit before the season and picked them to finish near the bottom of the conference. Northwestern was able to finish at #10 in the final Big Ten standings, but for the most part, the team didn't finish very well.

Still, the emergence of several young contributors, the bright finish to the season, and the upset of several quality Big Ten teams late in the year makes it hard to criticize Northwestern's underwhelming 15-17 record too harshly. There were a lot of things to be excited about for the Wildcats in 2014-15, even though they didn't meet their apparent season goals. These positives should bear at least some weight in the final calculation.

The Wildcats were not a great team in 2014-15.  They lost 12 games in Big Ten play and in reality, really didn't lose simply due to bad luck. This was a team that made some progress, but most of its potential should be for 2015-16 and not for the the 2014-15 season. As such, Northwestern doesn't deserve a harsh grade for their 2014-15 season, but it's hard to grade it as anything close to a successful season simply given their 6-12 record in conference play.

The honest reality of Northwestern's team last season was that it was simply mediocre. Although the team's youth and performance late in the year were certainly positives, spinning a 15-17 season as anything great simply isn't realistic. Fans can hope that last year was a building season, but basic results imply it wasn't a great team.

Highlights of the season included upset wins over Indiana and Iowa and exciting wins over Michigan and Minnesota late in the year. All four teams finished in the top 100 on KenPom and both the Hoosiers and Hawkeyes qualified for last year's NCAA Tournament. Low points of the season included non-conference losses to Central Michigan and Georgia Tech at home and a 10 game skid from early January to mid-February that featured five home losses.

Individual statistical leaders were were Tre Demps, Vic Law, Bryant McIntosh, and Alex Olah. Demps led the team in points. Law led the team in steals. McIntosh led the team in minutes, assists. Olah led the team in blocks, rebounds, usage among contributors, and win shares.

2. Offseason Exits

1516 northwestern departures

During the offseason, Northwestern lost a total of five players for a variety of reasons. These players were JerShon Cobb, Jeremiah Kreisberg,  Nick SeguraDave Sobolewski, and Johnnie Vassar. Three of these players graduated and two of these players transferred. Of these five players, the most significant losses are Cobb and Sobolewski. In fact, Kreisberg, Segura, and Vassar all averaged less than 10 minutes a game last season and only Kreisberg played 100 minutes over the entire season.

Despite the minimal hit to the team from these three departures, the losses of Cobb and Sobolewski do bear some significance. Cobb was one of the team's more productive outside shooters last season, had a respectable passing game, and was generally pretty efficient with a 104.1 offensive rating and a 53.6% true shooting percentage. Sobolewski clearly occupied a bench role for the Wildcats and only played 25.8% of the team's minutes, but when he did play he had decent production, having an offensive rating of 118.9.

Neither of these losses are hits to the starting lineup, but Cobb was generally one of the team's most productive bench players and Sobolewski did fill his limited role of managing possessions when McIntosh rested. In fact, these two players were arguably Northwestern's most significant bench players.

1415 northwestern bench win shares

As mentioned earlier, the departures of the other three players in Kreisberg, Segura, and Vassar are relatively insignificant, especially considering some of the newcomers. To start, Segura and Vassar really didn't even see the floor. Segura didn't play a minute in conference play and Vassar averaged 2.3 minutes over the conference slate. Kreisberg saw some time as a backup to Alex Olah, but at 7.4 minutes per game during Big Ten play, it's hard to see much significance there.

Overall, these offseason losses for Northwestern are pretty limited. Sure, the team is essentially losing a bench player at each position, but in total, these are not going to be minutes that are going to be too difficult to replace. After all, this wasn't the case of great players keeping good players on the bench last year. If these bench players had truly been great, they would have seen the floor a whole lot more. Finding adequate backups will be a minor storyline for Northwestern, but in total, the team will not be losing very much.

3. New Additions

2015 247Sports Recruiting Team Rankings

This season, the Wildcats will be bringing in three new recruits and one transfer. The recruits are Jordan Ash, Aaron Falzon, and Dererk Pardon. Falzon is rated as a 4-star prospect and the remaining two recruits are 3-star prospects according to 247Sports. Ash is a point guard and both Falzon and Pardon are power forwards.

The prospect is attracting the most attention is Falzon. He is considered to be an instant impact type of prospect and many believe he will be in serious consideration for a starting role early next season. This is largely due to Falzon's perimeter shooting and natural shooting stroke. The Wildcats improved significantly as an outside shooting team last season and Falzon could elevate that status even further this year.

Of course, even though Falzon will get much of the attention, Ash could be another player who could contribute significantly next season. There won't be a ton of minutes available in the backcourt, but it's not hard to imagine that Ash could be the most utilized bench player in the backcourt. With Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps returning, minutes will be few and far between, but Ash has the skillset to get minutes, especially with some further development.

The final recruiting addition is Pardon. Many expect his role will be very limited this season. To put it in perspective, his range of impact will likely range somewhere between a redshirt and the third option on the wing. This isn't a demerit against Pardon, but is more a byproduct of playing a similar role as returning forward Sanjay Lumpkin and a well polished prospect in Falzon. Look for him to make a bigger impact next season.

The incoming transfer is Joey Van Zegeren from Virginia Tech. Van Zegeren is a graduate transfer and will be eligible immediately this season. Like Kreisberg - who also transferred into Northwestern as a graduate transfer last season - he will likely serve as a backup to Alex Olah. Still, Van Zegeren's 6'10" size will demand attention and he averaged 9.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game last season with the Hokies.

Again, it's almost inconceivable that Van Zegeren plays anywhere but the bench this season, but if he can hold his own defensively and be a shot blocker off the bench (2nd on Virginia Tech in block rate last year), it could be a nice boost for the Wildcats and take some pressure off Olah.

This is not the type of recruiting class that is going to instantly redefine Northwestern's team, but it is one that should adequately fill all of the offseason losses, address a wing position that was inconsistent last year, and add valuable depth in the backcourt and upfront. The key newcomer should be Aaron Falzon, but look for Jordan Ash to be the primary bench option in the backcourt and for Joey Van Zegeren to provide valuable bench minutes behind Olah.

4. Team Strengths

The interesting thing about Northwestern's team last season was that its strengths completely flipped. The Wildcats were coming off a season where they performed dreadfully on offense and brought back much of the same roster as the year before. Basic logic implied that even though Northwestern would likely show more balance with a more talented lineup, it would still be a defensively led team. I wrote the follow in last year's preview:

The biggest weakness for Northwestern's team will be on the offensive side, and particularly when shooting the ball. The Wildcats were rated as the #309 offense in the country last season and a big part of that was the team's inability to shoot the ball.  Now, with the departure of Drew Crawford, there are going to be even more questions about how the team is going to try and score. JerShon Cobb and Tre Demps are proven scorers, but neither has been particularly efficient.  Crawford led the team in usage last season and Northwestern has to find a way to replace Crawford's 13 field goal attempts per game. Considering that only one player on the rest of Northwestern's team (Cobb) averaged at least 10 attempts per game, this will be no easy feat. The major worry here is that Cobb and Demps attempt to take the load over by themselves and make an inefficient returning offense even more inefficient. Perhaps Bryant McIntosh can help address these concerns, but this will likely be one of the biggest challenges in 2014-15 for Northwestern.

However, that statement proved to be wildly inaccurate as Northwestern not only improved the team's dreadful offense, but actually became a pretty solid offensive unit. A massive part of this improvement came with the team's outside shooting. Particularly, the additions of Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey, and Bryant McIntosh helped who took 39.5% of Northwestern's shots from outside the arc and hit at an impressive 35.9% clip.

Thanks largely to these shooting improvements, the Wildcats were able to jump all the way from #309 nationally in offensive efficiency to #94 last season. This is a massive rise and though Northwestern was still a long way from being an elite offense, it was a pretty significantly improvement.

This year, the logic would imply that Northwestern will at least maintain its offensive performance or maybe even take a small step forward. Virtually the entire lineup returns, the offseason losses are not particularly significant on paper, and the team is adding a sharpshooter in Aaron Falzon. Even if a few guys regress in their shooting, it's hard to see the offense not being at last decent next year.

Another area where Northwestern should continue to be strong is in the paint on the defensive end. Last season, the Wildcats were #38 nationally in defensive two point percentage and #83 nationally in block rate. With the return of Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey, Alex Olah, and Gavin Shelly, there isn't much of a reason to think that Northwestern won't maintain at least a pretty good defensive team inside this year.

There will be plenty of questions about how strong Northwestern can get in these areas, but with so many returns, this should still be a solid offensive team. Along with this, the interior defense should remain strong and could potentially help the entire defense progress this season.

5. Team Weaknesses

Though Northwestern will have some really nice positives about the team heading into next season, there are also going to be some areas where the Wildcats are looking to improve. The Wildcats will need to specifically work on creating more turnovers and having better rebounding this season.

Heading into last season, most expected Northwestern to continue to be a really good defensive team, or at least be decent. In fact, the Wildcats were a pretty good defensive team last year, but it's not hard to come to the conclusion that the team took a pretty big step backward.

1415 northwestern defneisve regression

The stats pretty clearly imply that Northwestern took a step backward. The loss of Drew Crawford certainly played a role in this regression. The areas that took some of the biggest hits were in the team's ability to pressure the ball and on the perimeter. This isn't a huge surprise given the fact that the rotation was so young.

There are plenty of quality defenses that don't force a ton of turnovers, but basic logic implies that a team that can force turnovers has an easier job. After all, with less possessions, scoring is typically going to go down. Unfortunately, the Wildcats ranked #339 in opponent turnover rate and just #346 nationally in defensive steal rate. Just take a look at how the team compared to the Big Ten.

1415 northwestern top 3 steal rate

Another area where Northwestern will look to improve significantly this year is on the boards. The Wildcats ranked just #283 in offensive rebounding rate and #164 nationally in defensive rebounding rate last season. Interestingly, Vic Law, Sanjay Lumpkin, and Alex Olah were pretty solid rebounders, but the rest of the roster did so little that Northwestern was pretty weak in the area.

The big thing that will be telling on whether Northwestern can improve on the boards will be if players like Tre Demps and Scottie Lindsey can become a bit better on the boards. The frontcourt will have the main job in rebounding the ball, but if some of the other players can grab an extra board or two, it could go a long way.

None of Northwestern's issues are massive enough to derail the season alone, but improving in some of these areas will be vital to having a successful year. If the Wildcats can become more consistent defensively and on the boards, it would go a long way toward the team's success.

6. Top Player

Last year, there was a lot of uncertainty about who would be Northwestern's best player. After all, the Wildcats had lost star player Drew Crawford and would have to find new contributors. The good news is that the team was able to find a good one in Alex Olah. Not only did he put together a really good 2014-15 season, but his skillset earned him the #13 spot in BTPowerhouse's top 25 Big Ten player countdown. Just look at some of his stats.

1415 northwestern win sharezzzz

Olah is legitimately one of the Big Ten's big men and for good reason. He has tremendous size, is a really nice player down low, and can rebound the ball. In fact, he was pretty easily Northwestern's best rebounder on the offensive and defensive boards last year and was the team's most productive shot blocker. Considering that he also had an offensive rating of 106.2 and was one of the most utilized offensive players, those numbers are pretty significant.

Of course, there are a few players that could challenge Olah as Northwestern's top player. To start, both Vic Law and Bryant McIntosh had solid freshmen campaigns last year and could be set to expand their roles. Along with this, newcomers Jordan ash and Aaron Falzon could also be players who have an outside shot.

Still, despite these other players, the clear frontrunner is Olah. He was a dynamic big man for the Wildcats last year and should have plenty more opportunities this year. Perhaps McIntosh could make some noise if he can build off last year, but overall, look for Olah to be the team's biggest contributor.

7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/5 - Quincy (Exhibition)
  • 11/13 - UMass-Lowell
  • 11/18 - Fairfield
  • 11/20 - Columbia
  • 11/23 - North Carolina (Kansas City, Mo.)
  • 11/24 - Kansas State/Missouri (Kansas City, Mo.)
  • 11/28 - New Orleans
  • 12/1 - at Virginia Tech
  • 12/5 - SIU Edwardsville
  • 12/13 - Chicago State
  • 12/15 - Mississippi Valley State
  • 12/19 - at DePaul
  • 12/21 - Sacred Heart
  • 12/27 - Loyola (Md.)
  • 12/30 - at Nebraska
  • 1/2 - Maryland
  • 1/6 - Ohio State
  • 1/9 - at Minnesota
  • 1/12 - Wisconsin
  • 1/16 - Penn State
  • 1/19 - at Maryland
  • 1/23 - at Indiana
  • 1/28 - Michigan State
  • 1/31 - at Iowa
  • 2/4 - Minnesota
  • 2/9 - at Ohio State
  • 2/13 - Illinois
  • 2/16 - at Purdue
  • 2/24 - at Michigan
  • 2/27 - Rutgers
  • 3/3 - at Penn State
  • 3/6 - Nebraska

By just about any measure, Northwestern has put together the most underwhelming non-conference schedule in the Big Ten for this season. Outside of two games for Northwestern in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic, there are no marquee games on the schedule and many of the matchups will be with what should be bad teams.

As mentioned, the significant non-conference games on this schedule come from the CBE Hall of Fame Classic where Northwestern will face North Carolina and either Kansas State or Missouri. Both matchups should be pretty difficult, but outside of those two games, there aren't a lot of games to raise the eyebrows. Road games with DePaul and Virginia Tech have some intrigue, but DePaul and Virginia Tech did combine to go 23-42 last year.

It's hard to put the remainder of the non-conference schedule in proper perspective, but a glance at last year's KenPom ratings will give some idea. The highest rated opponent for the Wildcats outside of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic will DePaul and the Blue Demons finished at #167 nationally. Generally speaking, Northwestern will have 11 of its 13 conference games against what should be teams that probably won't even be in serious NIT consideration.

With these opponents, this looks like a 10-3 non-conference performance for Northwestern at worst and very likely an 11-2 or 12-1 record. Pulling off an upset over North Carolina will be very difficult, but beating Kansas State or Missouri and the two road opponents in DePaul and Virginia Tech seems pretty reasonable.

The good news for Northwestern - depending on perspective of course - is that things will get much more difficult in Big Ten play. With double-plays against teams including Maryland and Ohio State and road games at Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan, there should be plenty of challenges. There are a plenty of winnable games, but it's a challenging slate.

Northwestern actually gets a pretty interesting start to conference play. The first five games features what looks like three very challenging teams and two weaker Big Ten teams, but the challenging games come at home and the weaker teams come on the road. Obviously, that's a tough, but enticing draw for the Wildcats. After that, things are going to get tough. The final 12 conference games include road games at Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, and Purdue.

The Big Ten slate will be tough, but there is a lot there for the taking for what should be a dangerous Northwestern team. Realistically, this is probably going to be somewhere around five to nine win range. Unfortunately, the tough road games makes it's difficult to see too many wins this year.

Overall, this is a pretty lopsided schedule for Northwestern. The non-conference schedule is pretty much two games and 11 underwhelming matchups and Big Ten play will be a pretty major challenge. However, if Northwestern can play well at home, there is still a lot of potential with this schedule.

8. Projected Starting Lineup:

  • PG: Bryant McIntosh (So.) - 90%
  • SG: Tre Demps (Sr.) - 95%
  • SF: Victor Law (So.) - 75%
  • PF: Sanjay Lumpkin (Rs. Jr) - 65%
  • C: Alex Olah (Sr.) - 95%

Realistically speaking, Northwestern has one of the easiest starting lineups to project in next year's Big Ten. This is primarily because all of last year's starting lineup returns. Starting in the backcourt, the Wildcats are virtually guaranteed to be starting Demps and McIntosh next season. Both were very productive last year and found themselves on at least one All-Big Ten list at season's end.

The only way one of Demps and McIntosh doesn't start is if incoming freshman Jordan Ash proves to be massively underrated and is an All-Big Ten player from season's start. Considering that this is pretty unrealistic, expect Demps and McIntosh to occupy the backcourt's starting lineup.

The wing group is perhaps the most interesting portion of Northwestern's starting lineup for next season and the most likely to have some variation. Law and Lumpkin were both decent players for the Wildcats last season, but were still probably the weakest contributors in the lineup. Though both have a lot of potential and Law was just a freshman last season, the two did compose arguably the weakest unit in Northwestern's lineup, so there is some room to adjust.

Along with this, the Wildcats are bringing in two freshmen on the wing - including 4-star prospect Aaron Falzon - who could make some noise on the wing and possibly even grab a starting spot. Nonetheless, expect Law and Lumpkin to start for Northwestern's season opener.

The final position in the lineup merits little discussion as Alex Olah should have the position locked down for the duration of the season. There's a pretty strong argument that Olah was the team's best player last season and with his return and another year under his belt, there aren't a lot of reasons to think he will regress this season. Even if Joey Van Zegeren is somehow able to push his way into a starting role, the Wildcats would likely just start him alongside Olah. Simply put, Olah is just too good to not start in Northwestern's lineup.

Overall, this should be a pretty dangerous lineup for Northwestern. Along with that, there should be at least one capable backup in each position group. If the wing position can find two good starters, the Wildcats have the potential to be a really good team this season.

9. Team Perspective From Jason Dorow at Inside NU

"As basketball season nears, the intrigue and cautious hype around Northwestern basketball continues to grow. The Wildcats lost just two players - guards Dave Sobolewski and JerShon Cobb - in the offseason, and neither of them played a big role in last year's system due to injuries. Senior captains Alex Olah and Tre Demps return after leading the team in scoring and trailing just Bryant McIntosh in minutes per game last season. McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey, all members of Collins' first recruiting class, reportedly put on significant muscle weight in the offseason. And that should pay dividends on the defensive end, where the trio had their greatest struggles in their freshmen campaigns.

Northwestern has all of its key pieces back, and the program is adding several players who should play big roles right away. ESPN top 100 recruit Aaron Falzon is exactly the player Collins has wanted to add. He's a stretch four who can shoot the lights out and give the offense the spacing it's so lacked. Graduate transfer Joey van Zegeren from Virignia Tech is actually a legitimate backup center, another piece NU hasn't possessed in the Collins era, and he can jump out of the building. Freshman Jordan Ash might play some point guard off the bench too, but Demps and McIntosh are the two staples in the backcourt.

Is this the year Northwestern makes the NCAA tournament? Probably not. With their cupcake non-conference schedule, the Wildcats will need to win a dozen Big Ten contests, if not more, to go dancing. This will be the last year that you see the remnants of the Carmody era though. The system and the flow should change with Demps and Olah gone in 2016-17. Collins will finally have the personnel to implement his scheme, and by 2018 the young head coach will have to prove his worth." - Jason Dorow.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Head coach Chris Collins has brought plenty of excitement to Evanston since taking over at Northwestern. Unfortunately, the team has yet to show the success on the court to reflect that excitement. However, with numerous key returners and offseason additions, this could be the year the Wildcats finally show progress.

Although the centerpiece of Northwestern's lineup will likely be big man Alex Olah, the Wildcats should also have a major contributor in Bryant McIntosh in the team's backcourt and a developing player in Vic Law on the wing. Add in a few recruits with the potential to contribute early and this roster looks be pretty dangerous. The issue will just be whether this team can improve enough to make a serious run in the Big Ten, especially on the wing.

Unfortunately, one also has to wonder about how much older players like Tre Demps and Alex Olah can improve this season. Along with that, there are plenty of question marks around how much players like Law and McIntosh can improve and how much the newcomers can contribute. Northwestern probably has a much higher ceiling as a team this year than last, but one has to wonder how much it can realistically grow with virtually the same group of contributors this season.

The Wildcats have the chance to make some noise in the Big Ten and even an outside shot at the NCAA Tournament this year, but this is probably not the realistic projection. This should be a better Northwestern team, but it's probably still a year or two away at least from finally breaking the streak and becoming the first Northwestern team to finally qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Big Ten Prediction: 10th Place