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2017-’18 Northwestern Wildcats Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Northwestern Wildcats and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2017-’18 season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Gonzaga vs Northwestern Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017-’18 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2017-’18 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.

***

For any attorney, there’s one moment that always go down as the most stressful of their professional live. It’s not standing in front of a courtroom for the first time, awaiting a jury to return with a verdict, or arguing with a judge.

No, it’s waiting for the results of the Bar exam.

After years of schooling, thousands of dollars in tuition, and months of studying, the decision on whether an attorney gets to be, well, an attorney, comes down to one moment. And thanks to a group of examiners, test takers are forced to spend months waiting for their results. They are sent to purgatory to await the news on whether they will have a career or will have to “try again next time.”

But, of course, those results do arrive. The passers get to celebrate the good news and the others are faced with tough decisions on what they would like to do next.

Either way, though, all are faced with one question.

What now?

After years of hard work, effort, and stress, they’ve finally achieved their goal. They crossed the finish line and got to celebrate. Unlike other professions, once you’re an attorney, you’re pretty much good to go. The Bar exam is the last trial by fire.

Northwestern now enters this season in the same way as those test takers enter their new lives. For years, fans have talked about what would happen if the Wildcats somehow made the NCAA Tournament. The dream has always been to see Northwestern’s name revealed on Selection Sunday and to play in the Big Dance.

Well, Northwestern finally did it. The Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament and the program will never be the same. Obviously, that’s good news for Northwestern, but it’s led many to wonder about what’s next for the Wildcats, head coach Chris Collins, and a roster filled with young talent. Will things continue to move in the right direction or was this a blip in a long history of frustration and underwhelming results?

The good news is that with so much talent already assembled, Northwestern figures to be able to build off its remarkable 2016-’17 season. Can they, ultimately, do it? Let’s take a look.

1. 2016-’17 Season Performance

  • Record: 24-12 (10-8)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #38
  • RPI Rating: #51
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (R32)

Let’s get something out of the way before we dive into this discussion. As mentioned above, there’s no denying that 2016-’17 was a historical season for Collins and the Northwestern program. Many thought the Wildcats would never make the NCAA Tournament, but the Wildcats proved the doubters wrong.

However, from this point forward, I am going to evaluate last year’s Northwestern team from a broader perspective. I am not going to judge the WIldcats on a “curve” because the team made the Tournament for the first time. We all know it was an amazing achievement for last year’s group, but that Band-Aid has been ripped off. As such, Northwestern will be evaluated as if they were any other team coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Ok, with that out of the way, let’s move on.

Heading into the 2016-’17 season, there were some high hopes for the Wildcats. The returned its major pieces from the previous season, got Vic Law back from injury, and added a talented 2016 recruiting class. And unlike the prior year, Northwestern had a legitimate non-conference schedule. Fans would quickly be able to find out whether the Wildcats were a legitimate unit and contender for the postseason.

Obviously, Northwestern would outperform even those hopes.

Not only did the Wildcats make the NCAA Tournament, but the team made the field with ease. Northwestern finished the season ranked 38th on KenPom and with wins over Dayton, DePaul, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and Wisconsin. And, if not for a controversial call in the Round of 32 against Gonzaga, Northwestern very well could have advanced to the Sweet 16.

However, even if Northwestern overachieved based on preseason expectations, it was still a flawed team. The Wildcats finished well outside the top 25 on KenPom and went 4-8 against top 100 teams to end the season. In fact, if not for a “Hail Mary” win against Michigan late in regular season play, Northwestern would have finished in the lower half of the Big Ten. The Wildcats weren’t the only team to get lucky last season, but it’s important to keep last season in context.

Northwestern was a solid-to-good team last season. The Wildcats weren’t a top 25 unit and were likely closer to the lower half of the Big Ten than the conference’s best teams. But it was still a great season for a team that had two underclassmen starters and plenty of young depth.

Individual statistical leaders were Vic Law, Bryant McIntosh, Dererk Pardon. Law led the team in steals and win shares. McIntosh led the team in minutes, points, assists, and usage among starters. Pardon led the team in rebounds and blocks.

2. Offseason Exits

As a relatively young team, Northwestern should not be hit very hard by offseason departures. In fact, the only two players departing the roster after last season are Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn. That’s pretty amazing for a team that won 24 games and advanced to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.

The biggest loss will, undoubtedly, be Lumpkin. Although he never amazed during his time in Evanston, he ended up seeing time in 137 total games and played 3,470 career minutes. He achieved career highs last season, starting in 36 games and playing 1,002 minutes while averaging 6.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Lumpkin was the epitome of a “career” college player and will now move on to the professional level.

Lumpkin wasn’t necessarily dominant in any individual statistical category, but was a remarkably diverse player on the court. He was efficient, avoided turnovers, was a respectable rebounder, and got to the free throw line. This was also with few offensive possessions, as Lumpkin only took 9.5 percent of the team’s shots while on the floor.

The Wildcats will also have to replace Taphorn, who played 29.6 percent of the team’s minutes during last season. Like Lumpkin, Taphorn was a diverse player that could see time at multiple spots when needed. However, unlike Lumpkin, Taphorn did have statistical areas that carried his game. Specifically, his 47.0 percent from three-point range during last season was an important mark for the team.

Northwestern won’t be losing much from it’s team last season. However, the two departures are significant as both saw significant minutes last season. Moreover, as both were seniors, one has to wonder if there will be any leadership hit to the roster as the younger players take over those duties.

3. New Additions

This season, the Wildcats will be adding one new recruit and one transfer. The recruit is Anthony Gaines, who is rated as a three-star prospect by 247Sports and listed as a shooting guard. The transfer is AJ Turner, who joins the program after transferring from Boston College.

Gaines is an interesting prospect. He is listed at 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds and received attention from the vast majority of the midwest powers. In fact, the final six schools in his recruitment were Butler, Cincinnati, Dayton, George Washington, Michigan and Northwestern. Considering the success that those programs have seen over the last decade, that’s a pretty impressive final six options.

The key things to watch with Gaines are his playmaking abilities and his athleticism. He was a great scorer at the high school level and that’s expected to transition to Northwestern as well. Unfortunately, Gaines is still a bit small to be expected to hold up during Big Ten conference play. Fans will have to hope that he can add some size before the season and can develop into a reserve role as time goes on.

Turner arrives at Northwestern after transferring out of Boston College. He will have two years of eligiblity remaining after sitting out the upcoming season. Turner originally comes out of Detroit, but ended up committing to the Eagles over an offer from Michigan State. He played substantial minutes at Boston College during his two seasons and averaged 8.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game last year.

At Northwestern, Turner figures to play at the three or four spot. Collins will hope that he can improve on his 37.4 clip from three-point range at Boston College and stick on the wing in Evanston. If so, Turner could be a danger piece for the Wildcats starting next season.

4. Points of Optimism

Maybe this seems a bit obvious, but we need to start with it. Northwestern is bringing back just about everybody from last season. Yes, the Wildcats are losing Lumpkin and Taphorn, but the team is returning 80.1 percent of minutes from a roster that won 24 games, made the Big Ten Tournament semi-finals, and made the Round of 32.

That’s, uh, significant.

Northwestern not only returns 4/5ths of that team, but all of its best players as well. Even if Lumpkin was a starter, Law led the team in overall win shares, McIntosh led Northwestern in scoring and assists, and Pardon led in rebounds and blocks. That’s a lot coming back from a team that recorded six wins against top 50 opponents.

The point here, should be obvious. Northwestern was a solid-to-good team last season and now returns (virtually) every key piece from that roster. Even if the Wildcats don’t see substantial improvement from players like Law, McIntosh, and Pardon, the team should still be pretty good. Heck, Northwestern could even regress from last season’s mark and still have a solid shot to make the NCAA Tournament.

However, the most important thing about so many contributors returning is how much youth was on last year’s roster, even though four of the team’s starters had at least two years under their belts prior to the 2016-’17 season. That’s because three of Northwestern’s primary backups in Jordan Ash, Barret Benson, and Isiah Brown were all underclassmen last season. Pardon was also just a sophomore last season.

This youth is a big reason why I wrote this in last year’s preview:

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.

. . .

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.”

Northwestern was already projecting to take a substantial step forward in 2017-’18 and that was before fans got to see the Wildcats break the curse and make last year’s NCAA Tournament. The bench figures to be even better than it was last season and that doesn’t even include the addition of Gaines or the return of Aaron Falzon from injury. In fact, Falzon could be good enough to push his way into the starting lineup.

And really, that’s where the strength will be for Northwestern. The team will likely be as deep, if not the deepest team in the Big Ten this season. When you consider that the Wildcats also have four proven starters, it’s easy to see why this team is so highly thought of entering this season.

The backcourt is also a specific area that should get fans excited. Both Lindsey and McIntosh figure to be in All-Big Ten consideration this season after both averaged more than 14 points a game last season. If the two can even make moderate improves from last season, Northwestern should have one of the best backcourts in the nation.

5. Points of Concern

Generally speaking, the biggest “concern” for Northwestern arises out of the team’s biggest strength. When a program returns as much as Northwestern will this offseason, it can actually make improvement harder in some scenarios. After all, with the same ingredients, getting a better dish isn’t always a guarantee.

Admittedly, having known commodities is usually better than unknown ones. That’s not exactly a controversial statement. It’s just important to remember that “bringing everyone back” doesn’t necessarily guarantee that this team will be better than the last one. This is especially true given that Northwestern does actually lose some pieces from last season, including a starter.

There are certainly enough new pieces available for Collins that Northwestern can improve, but the staff will have to figure out some things. Moreover, can players like McIntosh take steps forward or have they already hit their ceilings? My guess is the answer is somewhere in between those two scenarios, but this will a key storyline to watch as the Wildcats hope to take another step forward.

Another area to watch will be the team’s perimeter shooting. Northwestern ranked 204th nationally in three-point percentage last season and is losing one of its best shooters in Taphorn. While teams can win with underwhelming outside shooting, Northwestern is trying to go from good to great. It’s hard to imagine the Wildcats achieving that goal if the team remains outside the top 200 in three-point shooting.

Moreover, Northwestern was pretty weak across the board in shooting. The team was 206th in effective field goal percentage and 194th in two-point percentage. Northwestern had an efficient offense, but it had far more to do with ball control and offensive rebounding than shooting. Regardless of whether you prefer that style or not, Northwestern needs to improve its shooting.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, McIntosh was the player that I tabbed as Northwestern’s best coming into the season. This was after he put up impressive numbers as a sophomore and figured to take another step forward. Here’s what I wrote then:

“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.”

And with McIntosh returning to Northwestern again for his senior season, there aren’t many reasons to think he will lose his spot as the team’s best player. He averaged 14.8 points and 5.2 assists per game last season, including a 25 point performance in the team’s NCAA Tournament win over Vanderbilt. Even if someone else takes a step forward, it’s hard to anticipate anybody passing McIntosh as the team’s leader.

Of course, if someone does end up pushing McIntosh, the most likely candidates will be Law and Lindsey. Law had a fantastic season after returning from injury and Lindsey averaged 14.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, including double-digits in the team’s final five games of the season. Law seems like the more likely pick at this point, considering that he’s still developing as a player and hasn’t yet hit his ceiling.

Two other potential wildcards will be Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas. After a nice freshman season, Falzon missed last year with injury. Similarly, Ivanauskas missed last season with injury as well. However, both players were rated in the top 150 nationally as recruits and were expected to contribute significantly for the Wildcats. It’s hard to know what either will do coming back from injury, but the potential is there.

7. 2017-’18 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/10 - Loyola (MD)*
  • 11/13 - St. Peter’s*
  • 11/15 - Creighton*
  • 11/18 - La Salle (Uncasville, CT)
  • 11/19 - Boston College/Texas Tech (Uncasville, CT)
  • 11/24 - Sacred Heart*
  • 11/28 - at Georgia Tech
  • 12/1 - Illinois
  • 12/3 - at Purdue*
  • 12/11 - Chicago State*
  • 12/14 - Valparaiso*
  • 12/16 - at DePaul
  • 12/19 - Lewis*
  • 12/22 - at Oklahoma
  • 12/30 - Brown*
  • 1/2 - Nebraska*
  • 1/5 - at Penn State
  • 1/10 - Minnesota*
  • 1/14 - at Indiana
  • 1/17 - Ohio State*
  • 1/20 - Penn State*
  • 1/23 - at Minnesota
  • 1/29 - at Michigan
  • 2/1 - at Wisconsin*
  • 2/6 - Michigan*
  • 2/10 - at Maryland
  • 2/13 - at Rutgers
  • 2/17 - Michigan State*
  • 2/19 - Maryland*
  • 2/22 - Wisconsin*
  • 2/25 - at Iowa

Since taking over at Northwestern, Chris Collins has not exactly been aggressive with the program’s non-conference scheduling. Part of that is understandable. After all, he took over a program that had never made the NCAA Tournament and had struggled with inconsistency. As such, compiling a schedule filled with underwhelming opponents and “buy” games did make some sense.

However, as Northwestern has taken steps forward, the team’s schedule has started to beef up and fans will see the next step in that progression this year. That’s because this year’s non-conference slate features six or seven games that should (at least) get fans interested. The Wildcats are going to have their work cut out this year.

The games that look the biggest, on paper, are the road trips to Georgia Tech and Oklahoma and the home games against Creighton and Valparaiso. All four teams were in, or near the top 100 on KenPom (Valpo was No. 104) last season and three of the teams made the postseason. And while Oklahoma went 11-20 overall, that record is incredibly misleading as they played in a brutal Big 12. In fact, Oklahoma ended up ranking No. 65 on KenPom last year, despite having a losing record.

Additionally, Northwestern will also get La Salle at home, two games in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off in Connecticut, and a road trip to DePaul. Realistically, the Wildcats will be favored in all four of those games, but those are games that should add weight to Northwestern’s resume. The team should be able to use an intriguing non-conference schedule to build a solid record and a good RPI.

The Big Ten schedule also looks challenging.

To start, Northwestern is getting double-plays against Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. All four of those teams made last year’s NCAA Tournament and are projected to do so again this season. Barring an unexpected drop-off, that means nearly half of Northwestern’s league slate will be against Tournament level opponents.

And on top of those eight games, Northwestern also has road games against Indiana, Iowa, and Purdue and a home tilt against Michigan State. The only game of those four that the Wildcats will probably be favored in is the road game against Indiana. And we all know what kind of things happen in Bloomington. More simply put, that’s four more games that will be pretty challenging on top of the eight above.

This leaves us with six games where the Wildcats will be significant favorites at tip-off. Obviously, some of these teams won’t match preseason expectations (for better or worse), but I think this puts into context how difficult Northwestern’s Big Ten slate is going to be this season.

Navigating this schedule will depend substantially on how Northwestern plays at home. With these double-plays and so many other tough road games, winning at home is going to be the easiest route to success. Northwestern is a good team, but consistently winning on the road against NCAA Tournament quality teams is not a reasonable goal.

Overall, Northwestern’s schedule will give the Wildcats plenty of challenges this season. However, if the team can take care of business in non-conference play and defend home court in Big Ten play, there’s a route to a really nice record and, more importantly, an impressive RPI for Selection Sunday.

* - Northwestern will be playing in Allstate Arena this season.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Bryant McIntosh (Sr) - 95%
  • SG: Scottie Lindsey (Sr.) - 95%
  • SF: Vic Law (Rs. Jr.) - 95%
  • PF: Aaron Falzon (Rs. So.) - 60%
  • C: Dererk Pardon (So.) - 80%

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

Projecting a starting lineup for a new season is often a difficult task, especially for teams that figure to be somewhere in the middle of the conference. In fact, if figuring out a lineup becomes easier, it’s often because a team is lined up for a bad season. Players either lock down a spot because they’re good enough to do so or the team doesn’t have other alternatives.

Northwestern falls into the former category.

These five players aren’t projected to start because the team lacks other options. Rather, Northwestern’s lineup features four players hoping to make an All-Big Ten push this season. Few teams have that kind of talent and it makes projecting Northwestern’s lineup pretty elementary.

In the backcourt, McIntosh and Lindsey should lock down the starting roles. After great 2016-’17 seasons, there will be no drama from these two with regard to the lineup. The only interesting battle will be behind them, where Jordan Ash, Isiah Brown, and Anthony Gaines will compete for reserve minutes. This will also take on a bit of extra importance with the departure of Taphorn this offseason.

However, with McIntosh and Lindsey playing massive minutes, don’t expect any of these three to see the floor that often. Nonetheless, the most likely outcome here will be Ash and Brown sharing reserve minutes. Gaines may very well be a quality player for Northwestern down the line, but he joined the program as a pretty generic three-star prospect. It’s reasonable to anticipate that it will take some time for him to get his feet. In fact, don’t be surprised if he ends up redshirting.

On the wing, Vic Law is set to return after an impressive redshirt sophomore season. He averaged 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds a game and shot 39.9 percent from outside the arc. While he was inconsistent during the final two months of the season, Law likely still has the highest ceiling of any player on Northwestern’s roster. Fans will hope that he can improve his consistency this season and take the next step.

Alongside Law is where the drama should be in the lineup. The top two contenders for this spot are Aaron Falzon and Rapolos Ivanauskas. After putting up nice numbers as a freshman, Falzon missed last season with injury. Ivanauskas also missed last season with injury, though he is a year younger. With those injuries, Falzon is now a redshirt sophomore and Ivanauskas is a redshirt freshman.

My pick between these two is Falzon. To start, he’s more experienced than Ivanauskas and put up a really nice 2015-’16 season. In fact, Falzon averaged 8.4 points and 3.4 rebounds a game as a freshman and shot 35.4 percent from three-point range. Northwestern could really use that production with Lumpkin and Taphorn departed. Moreover, Falzon still hadn’t reached his potential as a freshman. He was a top 100 prospect, after all.

The backup minutes for Law and Falzon will largely be occupied Ivanauskas (or Falzon, if he doesn’t win the job) and returning senior Gavin Skelly. That should be more than enough considering the kind of minutes Law played last season. Expect both to get some decent minutes, though.

Upfront, Dererk Pardon returns after a really nice sophomore season where he averaged 8.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per game and shot 61.1 percent from two-point range. Barrett Benson should be his backup and will be looking to take a step forward after a really nice freshman season. The only question here will be whether Benson can push Pardon for the starting role. Both are players with size that can move. Northwestern is in good shape here.

Northwestern’s lineup projects to be one of the most talented and proven in this year’s Big Ten. And while there is one spot the team will have to fill, it will likely be filled by a former top 100 prospect. As long as there aren’t any unexpected dropoffs, Northwestern should be in good shape for this season.

9. Team Perspective From Davis Rich of Inside NU

"After the first NCAA tournament appearance in program history, Northwestern enters the 2017-18 season squarely in the national spotlight. Ranked 19th in the AP Top 25 and 18th in KenPom's rankings, expectations are much, much higher in Evanston-- many fans say, seriously or not, that Northwestern is a basketball school now.

The Wildcats return four starters, including point guard and All-Big Ten Second Team selection Bryant McIntosh. Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law Jr. are capable outside scorers and big man Dererk Pardon will likely be among the best centers in the Big Ten. Northwestern doesn't have the pedigree of Michigan State or Purdue, but this is an experienced group with plenty of rotational depth as well.

The big loss was Sanjay Lumpkin, Northwestern's do-it-all senior who provided defensive versatility, emotional leadership, and intangibles key to the Wildcat's success last season. Lumpkin didn't fill it up on the offensive end, but his impact on the other side of the court will be sorely missed. Northwestern has every reason to believe it can compete for a Big Ten title and return to the NCAA Tournament. No longer the underdog, how can the team build off last season's success and lay the foundation for a strong basketball program in the future?”

10. Overall Season Outlook

There’s little debating that last season was a historic one for the Wildcats. The team made its first NCAA Tournament in program history and was a call or two away from advancing to the Sweet 16. It was a special moment for Collins, the team, and the Wildcat fans that have suffered for years with underwhelming squads.

But the honeymoon is now over. The afterglow of last season has faded away and its time for the Wildcats to move forward. The position may be unfamiliar, but it’s one that fans hope the program gets used to in the years to come. Unfortunately, this season will be the first chapter in that new challenge.

The good news is that Northwestern returns an experienced and talented roster to assist in that transition. McIntosh and Lindsey should led one of the Big Ten’s better backcourts and the team also returns talented players like Law and Pardon that are hoping to continue to improve their play. Everything is still there for the Wildcats to be one of the Big Ten’s better teams.

However, the full potential of this team remains a question mark for the season to come. Can a roster filled with (largely) the same players improve? And can players like McIntosh take another step forward?

Even if the roster doesn’t improve, Northwestern should still be decent, but the Wildcats are trying to go from good to great. This is the step that’s the hardest. And with expectations rising, there will be more pressure than take that step.

All told, Northwestern figures to be one of the Big Ten’s better and more consistent units. Whether the Wildcats can improve on last season will largely come down to whether last year’s bench players can advance their play. Specifically, players like Ash, Brown, and Benson fall into this description.

Big Ten Prediction: 5th Place