There is a feeling of optimism among Northwestern fans entering the 2015-16 season. While the Wildcats are coming off a 15-17 campaign, they return nearly every contributor from last season, including all five players that started down the stretch. That doesn’t mean next season will be a cakewalk, but Chris Collins’ crew has a chance to make some noise in the Big Ten.
Joining those returning players are four new faces in recruits Aaron Falzon, Jordan Ash and Derek Pardon, as well as graduate transfer Joey van Zegeren. Though the Wildcats have no glaring holes that need to be filled, they will still benefit from their new talent. The start of next season is still far away, but let’s take a look at which newcomer has the best chance to help Northwestern improve in 2015-16.
Joey van Zegeren
A 6’10", 235 pound center, van Zegeren brings more size to the small ball Wildcats. What he also brings is enough athleticism to fit the up-temp style Collins likes to play. In four seasons at Virginia Tech, the former Hokie was a solid contributor, averaging 9.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game last season before departing the program. He’s not a jump shooter, but he has the quickness to be a mismatch for plenty of fives, making him an excellent change of pace from bruising senior Alex Olah. Of course, it’s the presence of the 7’0", 270 pound Olah that will prevent van Zegeren from being a starter. Having averaged 11.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks last season, Olah isn’t being moved to the bench. Still, van Zegeren should get plenty of minutes depending on what type of team the Wildcats are facing. Collins could always play the two big men together, but that probably won’t happen much since Northwestern is built to play small.
The Wildcats frontcourt could be formidable next season, and it’s hard to think of a better player to throw into the mix than Falzon, a four-star recruit from Massachusetts. A 6’7", 205 pound stretch four, Falzon is athletic enough to get to the rim and can also hit shots from the outside, even setting his high school’s record for most 3-pointers last season. While he appears to be a college ready player, it’s yet to be determined how Collins hands out minutes at forward. Last season, the Wildcats typically started Sanjay Lumpkin at the three and Vic Law at the four, and while Law is undersized for a power forward (6’7", 185 pounds), he showed promise last season as a freshman. Northwestern also has junior Nathan Taphorn and sophomore Gavin Skelly ready to come off the bench. Still, Falzon is too talented —especially as a shooter — to be buried on the depth chart. He may start off as a backup, but he could start if Collins thinks he and Law work better together than the Lumpkin/Law combination.
While the Wildcats are returning both members of their starting backcourt in Tre Demps and Bryant McIntosh, don’t rule out Ash getting time off the bench. Although he played mostly off the ball in high school, the 6’3" Ash is a combo guard who can shoot from the outside and create shots for teammates. That makes him a good fit for Northwestern, which doesn’t really have any other point guards to back up McIntosh. Demps has enough ball handling ability to play the one, but Collins can’t play him 40 minutes a night, meaning Ash should get on the court one way or another. He’ll likely go through some growing pains, but he’s enough of a competitor to still make an impact.
A 6’8", 235 pound center from Cleveland, Pardon gives the Wildcats even more depth in the frontcourt. Although he’s undersized, Pardon is another guy who fits Northwestern’s mold because of his athleticism and ability to run the floor. Still, it’s hard to imagine him playing much with Olah and van Zegeren in front of him. He may spend next year developing, but he could form a good duo with Falzon down the line.
Van Zegeren is the most experienced, but Falzon has the best chance to take the Wildcats to the next level if he can knock down threes like he did in high school. Expect them both to play quality minutes while Ash gets time as well. Pardon might have to wait his turn, though nothing is set in stone.