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2016-’17 Northwestern Wildcats Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Northwestern Wildcats and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2016-’17 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Day Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016-’17 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2016-’17 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 said team.

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Planting a garden is never an easy task. It involves hard work, dedication, and the understanding that sometimes, all that hard work and dedication will be for naught. Whether it’s the elements, an intruding rabbit, or the weather, there are unfortunate events that punish the gardner, despite their hard work.

For the last three seasons, Chris Collins has been trying his best to plant a garden in Evanston. The land might not exactly be fertile (Northwestern has never made an NCAA Tournament in its history), but he’s tried his darnedest to overcome the odds and find success against the elements.

Those efforts have been worthwhile, at least to a certain extent. Northwestern has seen a surge on the recruiting trail and has added some legitimate talent over the last few years, highlighted by four-star prospects Vic Law and Aaron Falzon. The recruiting depth has also been impressive as the Wildcats have added plenty of players with their fair share of Big Ten offers.

Unfortunately, the results have yet to show up on the court.

Although Northwestern has improved its win total and record since Collins’ first year with the program, the Wildcats still haven’t made the postseason or had a winning record in conference play. To put this in perspective, just consider last year’s 20-12 performance. Despite that 20-win total, the team didn’t just miss the NCAA Tournament, but it couldn’t even make the NIT. This was thanks to a paper thin non-conference schedule that boosted the team’s win total.

The progress was there, but Northwestern was still behind its long-term goals.

With that mixed performance over the last three seasons, Collins enters his fourth year with the program, hoping that the time can finally turn the corner and take that last step. The key will be replacing the team’s offseason departures and working in another talented group of freshmen. This could either be the start of a special era of Northwestern basketball, or the beginning of its demise under Collins. Needless to say, this is an important year for the program.

And with that in mind, here’s a look at what to expect this year.

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 Cornhuskers, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and former BTPowerhouse Contributor Jason Dorow breaking down Northwestern's roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2015-’16 Season Performance

  • Record: 20-12 (8-10)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #68
  • RPI Rating: #117
  • Postseason Appearance: None

As mentioned, last year was largely fool’s gold for Northwestern. The team made some progress (jumping from 122 to 68 on KenPom), but its record was more due to an incredibly easy non-conference slate than it was due to the team’s development. That becomes incredibly apparent when one considers that 13 (!!!) of Northwestern’s 20 wins last season came against teams outside the top 150 on KenPom.

But even though most of Northwestern’s success came against bad teams last season, the team did show some progress. It scored a few nice wins and only suffered one bad loss (Penn State) all season. Even if Northwestern wasn’t able to replicate its success against good teams, it was still a great start for the team. The program has done this in each of the last two years and it’s done quite a bit to move things forward.

The talent development on the roster was also apparent. Bryant McIntosh improved significantly from his freshman campaign and young players like Aaron Falzon, Scottie Lindsey, and Dererk Pardon showed flashes of quality play on the court. If fans were able to squint their eyes during some of the rough segments of Big Ten play, they could see Collins building the core of a potential NCAA Tournament team.

Highlights of the season included non-conference wins over Columbia, DePaul, Missouri, and Virginia Tech and Big Ten wins over Illinois, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. Low points of the season included the upset loss to Penn State at home, a frustrating loss to Ohio State at home and a crushing Big Ten Tournament loss to Michigan.

Individual statistical leaders were Tre Demps, Sanjay Lumpkin, Bryant McIntosh, and Alex Olah. Demps led the team in minutes, points, and usage. Lumpkin led the team in rebounds. McIntosh led the team in assists, steals, and total win shares. Olad led the team in blocks.

2. Offseason Exits

While Northwestern certainly isn’t getting decimated by offseason departures, the team is losing some key contributors that were a major part of the team’s rotation last season. The team will be losing three players to graduation and one to transfer. These players are Tre Demps, Alex Olah, Johnnie Vassar, and Joey Van Zegeren. All the players graduated except Vassar.

Northwestern’s most significant losses will come from Demps and Olah. Both were members of Northwestern’s starting lineup last season and two of the team’s biggest overall contributors. Demps led the team in minutes and scoring and Olah averaged a solid 11.4 points and 5.6 rebounds a game. Neither was a serious All-Big Ten threat, but there’s a reason why both were playing major minutes at the end of the year.

The good news is that both Demps and Olah’s departures aren’t quite as bad with some context. Demps was extremely productive overall, but had some serious efficiency (105.7 offensive rating) issues. Additionally, even though Olah was great when he played, he did have some injury issues. Neither of these circumstances will make up for the losses, but it could lessen their hit, at least somewhat.

Neither of the other losses look nearly as severe. Van Zegeren saw some decent minutes (11.4 mpg), but was never especially productive. He only had one game all year with over 10 points (at Minnesota) and only played over 10 minutes in one of Northwestern’s final 12 games. Vassar didn’t play during last season and saw action during just 18 games during the 2014-’15 season.

3. New Additions

This season, the Wildcats will be adding three recruits. These recruits are Barret Benson, Isiah Brown, and Rapolas Ivanauskas. All three are rated as three-star prospects by 247Sports. Brown is listed as a point guard, Ivanauskas as a small forward, and Benson as a center.

The highest rated prospect of the three is Ivanauskas, but most view he and Benson as largely equivalent, at least in terms of scout rankings. Although neither is an elite prospect, both are considered solid options that got their fair share of attention on the recruiting trail. To put things simply, these aren’t your generic three-star guys and are more than capable of playing when they arrive on campus.

Of those two prospects, the one most likely to get serious playing time will be Benson. That’s not necessarily because he’s the better player, but because Northwestern loses a ton in its frontcourt. Though Benson probably won’t beat out returner Dererk Pardon early on, he should get major bench minutes. If he can be productive and help the team on the boards, he could make a huge difference this season.

Ivanauskas will attempt to get his minutes behind a deep wing group that features Aaron Falzon, Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey, Sanjay Lumpkin, and Nathan Taphorn. If he does get serious (20+) minutes a game, he will have to earn his time. There’s simply no other way he will see the floor with that competition.

The final addition is Brown, who figures to either redshirt or provide depth off the bench in Northwestern’s backcourt. With Jordan Ash and Bryant McIntosh both returning, there won’t be many minutes available for Brown.

4. Team Strengths

The Wildcats might not have met the program’s goals last season, but as mentioned, the team did make some serious progress on the court statistically. Nowhere was that growth more significant than on the offensive end of the floor and from long range. With plenty returning, those areas should remain strong for Northwestern this season.

Perhaps the biggest factor for Northwestern’s offensive success will be Bryant McIntosh. He was productive last year with a 110.1 offensive rating and an absurd 37.3 assist rate, but he trailed off in Big Ten play and it really hurt Northwestern’s production. He’s expected to be “the guy” this year and needs to play as such.

But with McIntosh back along with key players like Aaron Falzon and Scottie Lindsey, it’s hard to see too much regression from Northwestern’s offense. And no area could be stronger than the team’s outside shooting. If McIntosh can improve his consistency, the team could have three to four of the Big Ten’s best outside shooters. That could do wonders for the Wildcats and help Northwestern against some of the better defenses.

One other area that figures to remain strong on the offensive end is the team’s ball control. With McIntosh and several other guards returning, this should be an excellent passing team. One player to watch in this regard could be Lindsey, who figures to take Demps’ departed spot.

5. Team Weaknesses

Even with some major offensive strengths, Northwestern will have some major red flags this season. Most will come on the defensive end and on the boards, but one other concern will be in the paint on the offensive end. All three areas will be vital as to whether Northwestern can progress this season.

While Northwestern made some offensive progress the last two seasons, the team has seen some serious regression from its No. 23 nationally rating in Collins’ first year. The team has particular trouble forcing turnovers and can’t maintain pressure outside the arc. It’s numbers were far from terrible (No. 87 nationally in defensive efficiency), but could also regress substantially with a young and inexperienced frontcourt.

One of the other potential areas of concern will be on the boards. Northwestern did a decent job rebounding last year, but the team’s top rebounder (Alex Olah) will be departing and one of its best offensive rebounders (Joey Van Zegeren) will also be hitting the dusty trail. Even if Northwestern seamlessly works in younger players, it’s hard not to anticipate at least some regression here.

Northwestern could also be set for some major struggles in the paint offensively this season. The team ranked No. 242 and No. 344 respectively in percentage of team points off two-pointers and free throws respectively. Additionally, Northwestern had no player in the top 35 (!!!) in the conference in free throw rate. If the newcomers can’t make a splash upfront, this could potentially unravel what otherwise looks like a talented offense.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, the runaway picks for Northwestern’s best player were Vic Law, Bryant McIntosh, and Alex Olah. However, when both Law and Olah suffered injuries, McIntosh became the “guy” for the Wildcats. He wasn’t perfect, but there’s no debating that he was Northwestern’s best and most productive player last season.

With McIntosh now returning for his junior season, it’s hard to think any Wildcat can dethrone him to become Northwestern’s best player this season. McIntosh averaged 13.8 points, 6.7 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game and wasn’t even the most used player offensively. If he can add a little consistency to his outside shot and improve at getting to the line, he could be in the running to be one of the Big Ten’s best players.

Perhaps the two biggest contenders to beat out McIntosh for the honor of being Northwestern’s best player will be Aaron Falzon and Vic Law. During last season, Falzon showed some major promise on the floor and was tremendously efficient with a 113.3 offensive rating. Law missed the year with injury, but was great as a freshman and could be set for a major jump heading into this year.

Two wildcards to watch will be Scottie Lindsey and Dererk Pardon. Each showed flashes of star potential last season, but neither was consistent enough to be in the serious discussion here.

7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/4 - Illinois Springfield (Ex.)
  • 11/11 - Mississippi Valley State
  • 11/14 - Eastern Washington
  • 11/16 - at Butler
  • 11/21 - Texas (Brooklyn, NY)
  • 11/22 - Colorado/Notre Dame (Brooklyn, NY)
  • 11/25 - Bryant
  • 11/28 - Wake Forest
  • 12/3 - DePaul
  • 12/11 - New Orleans
  • 12/14 - Chicago State
  • 12/17 - Dayton (Chicago, IL)
  • 12/20 - IUPUI
  • 12/22 - Houston Baptist
  • 12/27 - at Penn State
  • 12/30 - at Michigan State
  • 1/5 - Minnesota
  • 1/8 - at Nebraska
  • 1/12 - at Rutgers
  • 1/15 - Iowa
  • 1/22 - at Ohio State
  • 1/26 - Nebraska
  • 1/29 - Indiana
  • 2/1 - at Purdue
  • 2/7 - Illinois
  • 2/12 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/15 - Maryland
  • 2/18 - Rutgers
  • 2/21 - at Illinois
  • 2/(25/26) - at Indiana
  • 3/1 - Michigan
  • 3/(4/5) - Purdue

Let’s start with the obvious. As mentioned numerous times, Northwestern’s non-conference schedule was an absolute joke last season. It was purposely manipulated to manufacture a quality record for the Wildcats. Regardless of whether you support that goal or not, it’s what happened. Let’s just call a spade a spade.

However, things have improved this year. While the schedule is still relatively underwhelming, it does feature matchups with what figures to be quality Butler, Dayton, Texas, and Wake Forest teams and another against either Colorado or Notre Dame. Additionally, DePaul and IUPUI project to be at least top 200 teams. None of this may sound particularly impressive, but believe me, this is a huge upgrade from last year. That might mean more losses, but it should give Northwestern an opportunity to score some decent wins early, especially at home.

Things will get even more interesting in conference play. Northwestern has a pretty tough schedule, but it’s pretty balanced and features plenty of winnable games. What’s really interesting is that Northwestern has eight games that range between 40 and 60 percent on KenPom’s win expectancy projections. That means nearly half of Northwestern’s schedule looks like 50-50 games this year. Even outperforming (or underperforming) preseason expectations slightly could have a massive impact on the team’s conference record.

Perhaps the most interesting schedule will be the team’s final six conference games. Northwestern is favored in just two of those matchups, but has 41 percent or better odds in three more of those games with two at home. Without being hyperbolic, those six games could determine whether Northwestern makes the postseason or not.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Bryant McIntosh (Jr.) - 95%
  • SG: Scottie Lindsey (Jr.) - 55%
  • SF: Vic Law (Rs. So.) - 60%
  • PF: Aaron Falzon (So.) - 55%
  • C: Dererk Pardon (So.) - 70%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Northwestern’s backcourt looks pretty loaded this year, even if it’s not exceptionally deep. With the return of Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, and Jordan Ash, there’s a three-man group that could be productive. Considering that Isiah Brown is also joining the roster and that numerous other players can slide to the two if needed, there’s more than enough to work with here. However, the two players that look to lock down the starting spots will be McIntosh and Lindsey, who were both solid last season.

The wing should be relatively similar for Northwestern. There’s a lot of proven guys coming back with another talented addition joining the group. The two players who offer the most upside are former four-star recruits Aaron Falzon and Vic Law and I am expecting those two to lock down starting spots at some point this season. Of course, don’t count out players like Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn to make some noise either. It’s a deep group that could end up taking three spots in the lineup depending on how players develop.

Despite the depth and talent elsewhere on the roster, the frontcourt projects to be a major question mark this season. With two of the team’s top contributors upfront heading elsewhere this offseason, there are a lot of minutes and contributions to be filled. While there is some hope there, it’s hard to have any certainty as to how the group will perform given that none of the serious options have played much.

Those likely options will be underclassmen Dererk Pardon and Barret Benson. While Pardon saw some serious time (16.6 mpg) last season, Benson is an incoming freshman. Neither is a known commodity, but each has shown potential. Pardon is likely the starter, but many feel that Benson can push him relatively early if he develops well. It should be an interesting battle and expect the two to split minutes heavily.

9. Team Perspective From Jason Dorow

"Coming off a 20-win season and 8-10 mark in conference, Northwestern and its fans may have to dial back expectations slightly in 2016-17. After playing a cupcake-filled non-conference slate last year, Chris Collins beefed up the competition in November and December with matchups against Dayton and Butler, as well as two games in the Legends Classic, which features Texas, Notre Dame and Colorado. The additional early competition could pay off because the Wildcats really lacked quality wins last season. While NU had just one bad loss - a 71-62 defeat at home against Penn State - in 2015-16, their only notable victories came against Wisconsin and Virginia Tech.

On the court Northwestern has two huge holes to fill. Seniors Alex Olah and Tre Demps were easily two of NU's three best players last season, and they accounted for almost 35 percent of the team's points. The task of replacing Olah's 11 points and 6 boards per night will fall on a pair of big men in sophomore Dererk Pardon and freshman Barret Benson. Neither has Olah's 7-foot frame, but Pardon showed flashes of brilliance last season, especially on the offensive glass. And Benson, the top frontcourt prospect from the state of Illinois in 2016, is the standout of Collins' incoming recruiting class.

The youthful centers will be joined by a mixed bag in the frontcourt. Sophomore stretch four Aaron Falzon should see plenty of run, as should graduate senior captain Sanjay Lumpkin, whose game is predicated on defensive prowess and cleaning glass. The big news for NU is that redshirt sophomore Vic Law, a former ESPN100 recruit, is back after missing all of 2015-16 with a shoulder injury. A lengthy 6-foot-7 forward, Law can play on both ends of the floor and could evolve into the Wildcats' primary playmaker.

Northwestern's backcourt has one given and one question mark. Junior point guard Bryant McIntosh is on pace to become NU's career leader in assists and should gobble up 33+ minutes per game for the third consecutive season. But nobody really knows who will earn Demps's minutes at the two-guard. Expect to see a mix of perimeter shooter Scottie Lindsey and defensive ace Jordan Ash in the early going, and maybe even some of freshman Isiah Brown.

The 2016-17 Wildcats will be a youthful bunch, and progression for the sophomores and juniors will be integral to NU's success this season. Chris Collins will need McIntosh and Law to be on every night. And for this team to contend in conference, somebody has to step up at shooting guard, and Pardon and Benson have to prove they can run with the likes of Isaac Haas and Thomas Bryant. All in all, 17 or 18 wins wouldn't be too shabby for Northwestern this season." - Jason Dorow.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Chris Collins has been trying to plant a garden in Evanston during each of the last three seasons. Although his efforts have only yielded an underwhelming 49-48 (.505) record, the markings are finally there of a good team. The roster has been getting deeper and more talented each year and it looks like the building blocks are finally taking shape to get Northwestern to the promise land.

Unfortunately, those building blocks are, well, just building blocks. The backcourt has a potential star in Bryant McIntosh and the wing group looks deep, but the frontcourt is incredibly young and inexperienced and the team is still losing its leading scorer in its backcourt. Those are legitimate concerns that could derail growth elsewhere.

Additionally, the schedule looks substantially more difficult than it was last year and an enormous number of Northwestern’s conference games will be toss-ups. If that frontcourt underwhelms a bit and the team can’t find a new backcourt scorer, things could get out of hand pretty quickly in Big Ten play. That’s certainly a two-edged sword, but it’s not ridiculous to think Northwestern’s record gets worse, even if it’s roughly as good as it was last year.

The good news is that even if things don’t go particularly well this season, the signs are there of something special building for Collins and the Wildcats. This program and its fans have waited a long time (literally forever) for successful on the hardwood, but it could be coming soon. Just probably not this year.

Big Ten Prediction: 9th Place