In professional sports, nearly half the teams make the postseason depending on the sport. The nature of money, contracts, TV deals and everything in between allow for much more parody in professional sports than in the NCAA. Despite having an all-star cast of alumni and a fantastic academic reputation, the Northwestern Wildcats are stuck sitting at home year after year during the NCAA Tournament. With Chris Collins starting year three in Evanston, is this finally the year he can get over the hump and gets the ‘Cats dancing in March? We break down the three biggest storylines:
Who Becomes The Go-To Player For Northwestern This Season?
Northwestern's last breakout star was Drew Crawford, a gritty 6'5 combo guard who did everything for the Wildcats two seasons ago. Last year, Northwestern lacked a player with killer instinct at both ends of the floor. Tre Demps, last year's leading scorer, returns for his senior year and is hoping to build off a very solid junior campaign. Maybe big man Alex Olah continues to elevate his play and becomes the man, as Olah showed glimpses of brilliance against Georgia Tech (19 points) and Michigan (22 points). But the guy I expect to step up another notch or two is Bryant McIntosh. McIntosh does not fit the mold for the prototypical Northwestern (My first thought was Dave Sobolewski, who played at Northwestern for somewhere between 6 and 10 years), as the 6'3" point guard is a wizard knifing to the basket and is an excellent passer. He will need to become an all Big-Ten performer this season for Northwestern to be very good, but he absolutely has the talent and instinct to become one of the best players in the league.
Can Northwestern Take Advantage of a Weak Non-Conference Schedule?
Last year's Big Ten non-conference darlings were Penn State, as Pat Chambers' team jumped out of the gate 12-1 in non-conference play. This year's Wildcats' non-conference schedule features mostly cupcakes, including games against UMass Lowell, Fairfield, Columbia, New Orleans, SIU Edwardsville, Chicago State, Mississippi Valley State, Sacred Heart and Loyola (MD). Those are nine games the Wildcats should absolutely win, and games at Virginia Tech and DePaul will be more challenging but are still winnable games. Even if Northwestern drops games against Kansas State/Missouri and preseason top-5 North Carolina, that leaves them at 11-2 heading into conference play. As we saw last season with Michigan and Nebraska dropping awful games in the non-conference, nothing is given until the final buzzer sounds, but this would be a huge moment shifter and would allow Northwestern some breathing room heading into conference play.
Is This Finally The Year Northwestern Makes the NCAA Tournament?
While the Big Ten isn't as top-heavy as in previous years, it's anyone's guess as to who could finish one through eight in conference play. Could Northwestern be the team that squeaks into sixth place at 10-8? We could break down every game and pencil in a Wildcat win or loss, but I'd rather focus on a few of the players who aren't going to be stars but need to be solid role players for the Wildcats to win. Two wing players fit this perfectly, as both Sanjay Lumpkin and Vic Law could both start but aren't expected to be massive offensive contributors. Law was tabbed as the "it" recruit to bring Northwestern basketball back, and he struggled somewhat last season, averaging 7 points and 5 rebounds in his first campaign. Lumpkin only averaged 4 and 4, but his contributions are more focused defensively. The last player that hasn't been mentioned yet is Aaron Falzon, a 6'8" forward who played his prep school ball at Northfield Mount Hernon. Falzon came on strong at the end of this year and adds a level of toughness inside as well as an ability to knock down the long ball. If Falzon can add some muscle before the season starts, his versatility could be a huge factor in Northwestern's success this season.
Every year, there is a ton of optimism in Evanston about how Northwestern is finally ready to take the next step and make the tournament. While their go-to player still remains up in the air, they have a bunch of nice pieces to fill out an 8 or 9 man rotation. Can Collins and the ‘Cats win the games they're supposed to and steal a game or two on the road over a big time opponent? If so, they could be dancing come March. If not, they'll be leaving their shoes at home for another year.