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The Brannigan: The Case for Believing and Not Believing in the Northwestern Wildcats

It's been oh so long of a wait for the Northwestern basketball devoted. Yet here they are, finally, with a team that looks like they are ready to take the proverbial step from down and out to -- dare I say -- semi-contender? But will that step be taken this season? Yes! Er, well, maybe?

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There is an inner discourse that takes place in my brain. It's mostly about silly, non important things like, "Do you think Jennifer Lawrence likes to snuggle?" or "What is Bo Ryan's favorite thing to eat at two in the morning after a long night on the town?". It's immature I know, but it keeps me awake while I'm at work.

But there are times, when I'm watching -- and especially writing -- about college hoops where this monologue takes a basketball jones-like turn.

Which brings us to Chicago's Big Ten basketball team.

Recently, I've written a ton about Northwestern's program and I was surprised to find that I've fallen in love with the idea of the Wildcats finally ending their historic run in 2016. And honestly, how could I not love them? How could I not believe in the Cats?

Bryant McIntosh is the exact player I created in my NCAA March Madness video games growing up. Tre Demps is a fearless scorer that graduated from the Kobe Bean Bryant Preparatory School for Young Gentlemen. Vic Law has some Justise Winslow in him. Chris Collins has the sharp charm of Eddie Haskell and the Straight-from-Coach-K's-Diary version of "How to Build a Prominent Program in Three Years" plan.

But then my brain reminds me that Northwestern hasn't had a winning conference season since 1968-69. That they haven't once made the NCAA Tournament and the closest they've come was when Northwestern hosted it in 1939. That they have some weird Cubs-like curse over the program.

Hence, the brannigan, my inner squabble. Like their lovable-loser neighbors, can this be the season it all ends? There's little doubt in my mind that Chris Collins can get NU to the brink, but when he launches them over the edge, will they fall with Coyote-like gravitas or will they fly?

'Tis the ultimate question. So like a sports writing version of Annalise Keating, let's present the arguments for and against this purple loving defendant.

The Case for Believing

There are two magic numbers that have to be in the back of the coaching staffs minds: 21 and 9. As in, 21 overall wins including nine in Big Ten play. While the Wildcats schedule isn't anything to write home about -- email, text, snapchat, Instagram or Facebook about for that matter --  the sum of those wins are on the board. The Wildcats should open up the season 3-0 (UMass-Lowell, Fairfield and Columbia) before having to take on North Carolina and either Missouri or Kansas State in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic. UNC is a load and I'm not delusional, but a win against a rebuilding Mizzou team who just lost their best scorer without replenishing the cupboard with any Top-100 talent doesn't seem out of the question. The same can be said of Bruce Weber's Kansas State team who last year was the definition of a "Hot & Cold" team who also lost 5 players to dismissals and transfers. Call me optimistic but anything but a 4-1 record to start would be rather disappointing.

Next comes New Orleans (win), then last years 11-win Virginia Tech team who also has a ton of turnover (win), Southern Illinois (win), Chicago State (win), Mississippi Valley State (win), DePaul (woof-win), Sacred Heart (win), and Loyola-Maryland (win) before Big Ten play begins.

I'm not crazy am I? A 12-1 start to the season? It's possible right? Or rather not impossible. There are crazier things than NU blowing through that non-con with only one blemish. Maybe I'm blinded by the Chris Collins shine (Ok, I'm probably blinded by the Chris Collins shine), but the worst case scenario has to be a loss to UNC and maybe one more against the Mizzou/K-State or VT match-ups, right? Playing a game the next day after playing a Top-5 Tar Heels team is going to be hard. But it will show a lot about the resilincy of this team if they can come into that gym the next day and bury whichever team they draw. It will also be a tricky trip to Blacksburg, but the Hokies were not a fun basketball team to watch last year. I believe in Buzz Williams and what he will eventually do for this program, but there's not much substance here. I'd be shocked if Northwestern doesn't add to the Big Ten's tally in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

That brings us to the conference slate and it's very, VERY manageable. BTPowerhouse writer H. Ben Davis dove into this a few weeks back:

The five teams Northwestern has to play twice in the Big Ten are Nebraska, Penn State, Minnesota, Maryland, and Ohio State. This sets up pretty well for the Wildcats as they get to play 3 teams (Nebraska, Penn State, and Minnesota) who they should be better than twice as well as getting two shots at Maryland to pull off that signature resume win.

Let's say Northwestern splits with Ohio State and Penn State while sweeping Nebraska and Minnesota. Then add in another conceivable win against Rutgers in February. Thats seven conference wins that I feel pretty confident in. Suddenly their matchup against Illinois at home in February is extremely important and well, another potential win on the schedule. The one question that remains is can the Wildcats steal a win at home against Wisconsin or Michigan State or on the road at Iowa, Purdue, Indiana or Michigan?

If the Big Ten is once again one of the top two conferences in all of basketball, coming in at .500 or above would do wonders to get this Northwestern team into the national spotlight. It may end up being a play in game, but that counts! And after all, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!

The Case for Not Believing

Again, it's the schedule. As good as it looks for possible win totals, it could just as easily be the double edged sword that ends up slaying the Big Purple Dragon. Strength of schedule is extremely important when it comes to the NCAA Tournament selection process and that non conference slate is about as hard as the Pillsbury Doughboy. Every one of those teams outside of the CBE Classic had a losing record last season. EVERY ONE. So it would seem that Northwestern would need to win more like 10 or 11 Big Ten games while blowing through their early season match-ups -- and I'm not so sure that's on the board. Winning against teams they should beat has proven to be difficult in the past.

At best, this seems like a bubble team that has a few mentions by Joe Lunardi as they fight for a 9-9 record during Big Ten play.

And all of this is before mentioning how Chris Collins needs to repair the team defense which ranked second to last in the Big Ten (165th in the nation) according to KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency rating giving up 102.4 points per 100 possessions to an average D-I team. This was a major disappointment coming a year after ranking second in conference and 14th in the nation -- a major slide. If the defense is as weak as it was last season, all of this is off the board. All of it. Northwestern is going to have to put up a 2013-14 type performance on the defensive end while maintaining their offensive output from last season (and probably needing a slight jump).

Vic Law is going to have to show more in his second season. Bryant McIntosh is going to have to jump yet another level in his game. Tre Demps needs to continue to be an efficient scorer. Will Scottie Lindsey continue to attack with reckless abandon with more minutes this season? Will Alex Olah improve in nearly every statistical category once again in his senior season? What about Nathan Taphorn? Can he shoot the three as well this season to keep opposing defenses honest? And that incoming freshman class.... for all of this to happen they'd have to play like second year players, right?

That's a lot needing to go right.

The Verdict

I told you... I have this weird, basketball Fight Club thing going on in my brain. But I want to believe in something. I want to be the driver of a bandwagon. I'm going to be the driver of the bandwagon. I think Northwestern can make moves up the Big Ten this year. I think they can get through that non-conference schedule with relative ease.

This is the year for the North side of Chicago. Let's do this Northwestern -- PLAY IN GAME OR BUST!