For Northwestern head coach Chris Collins and his staff, the start to this season could not have gone any better. The Wildcats (11-1) are rolling, and have just one loss on the season; that being to a North Carolina team that belongs in the top 5 of the AP poll. Every member of the team seems to be contributing, including the underclassmen and many speculate that this may finally be the first year that Northwestern makes the NCAA tournament. Here we examine three takeaways from this start and how it has and will impact the Wildcats down the stretch of the conference season.
McIntosh, Demps and Olah: The stars are shining bright
Entering this season, we knew that Northwestern's offensive success would hinge upon the performance of the three returning starters: Bryant McIntosh, Tre Demps and Alex Olah. In 2014-2015, those three accounted for 56.5% of the team's points, scoring a combined 35.6 points per game. This season, they have continued to perform. This year, the three have accounted for 54.4% of the team's points while scoring a combined average of 43.5 points per game. Another year of maturation has allowed these stars to develop into seasoned Big Ten players that can put up large numbers night in and night out.
For the Wildcats to make a run at the tourney this season, they have to continue to get consistent production out of this core trio. What makes them dangerous is the fact that each of the three have different skill sets, Olah in the paint, Demps from the outside and McIntosh all over the court. This should allow for increased versatility on the scoring end for the rest of this season. Each of these guys make the other better, and they should progress as teammates even further as we head towards March.
The non-conference schedule has not been tough
This is obviously something that the NCAA tournament selection committee will be looking come March. So far, Northwestern has the 306th ranked strength of schedule in all of Division 1, which clearly is very weak. The best win they have thus far may be against Virginia Tech, who is listed at 118th in the KenPom rankings. Despite a loss against North Carolina, the Wildcats really haven't played anybody noteworthy this season, and at times have barely gotten by. It took overtime for them to best both Columbia and DePaul, two very subpar teams. This begs the question; is Northwestern for real?
The first answer we will get will be when they open the conference season against Nebraska in Lincoln. While this is definitely a winnable game, it should be an accurate test of how this team can handle themselves on the road. From there, it gets much more difficult. The Wildcats host #4 Maryland in which should be an absolute grinder. The Terps are one of the best teams in the nation, and will present a surmountable test for this NU team. From there on out, the conference season will be a fight to the finish.
The NCAA is already getting turned upside down
So far, this college basketball season has been absolute madness. The number of non-conference upsets that have taken place is unprecedented, and Northwestern has the means to soon get in on the action. Because the mighty seem to be falling so fast, this may be the Wildcats' best opportunity to sneak in and snag an at large bid. If they are able to get a couple big wins in conference play (ex. Purdue, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa) with a possible huge upset (Michigan State, Maryland), Northwestern will be in business. Only time will tell if the Cats can make the Big Dance for the first time in school history.