The 2016-17 version of the Northwestern Wildcats was a historically groundbreaking one. The team earned the school’s first ever bid to the NCAA Tournament and even earned their first tournament victory against the ninth seeded Vanderbilt Commodores. They came up short, after a furious second half rally, against eventual tournament runner-ups, the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
On their way to a March Madness debut, the Wildcats set a school record for wins (24), finished tied for fifth in the Big Ten, and reached the semi-finals of the Big Ten Tournament. After finally turning the corner the Wildcats will find that their cupboard is still fully stocked. Only two contributing departures from last year’s team have Northwestern hungry for a March Madness second course.
- Sanjay Lumpkin
The graduating senior and starting lineup mainstay, Sanjay Lumpkin, was never a statistical contributor in the way his other lineup mates had been throughout his time in Evanston. In Lumpkin, the Wildcats are losing a combined 126 starts and a player that head coach, Chris Collins, trusted immensely.
Although Lumpkin averaged just six points and five rebounds per game last year, his high basketball IQ will be missed the most from the lineup. He posted a robust offensive rating of 129.2 and was as efficient as he was reliable on both ends of the court posting a 99.7 defensive rating.
Although Lumpkin went undrafted, he found a spot on the New Orleans Pelicans’ Summer League roster, but could not parlay that summer stint into an NBA opportunity. He will be playing basketball this year in Leuven, Belgium after signing a full year contract with the Leuven Bears.
Replacing Lumpkin’s on court presence won’t be too tall of a task for Coach Collins. He has a dearth of experience to pull from that will allow the Wildcats to carry on and not miss a beat. Senior wing, Gavin Skelly, and could scoop up some of Lumpkin’s minutes and look to crack the starting the lineup for the first time in his Wildcat career. If there was a team more equipped to handle the loss of 126 career starts, it’s Northwestern.
- Nathan Taphorn
The Wildcats also have to say good-bye to graduating sharp shooter, Nathan Taphorn. The Pekin, Illinois native shot a career best 47% from three-point land last season with 75% of his total field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc.
That kind of reliable distance shooting will be tough to replace. He only started two games for the Wildcats last season, but was an effective weapon off the bench. Taphorn placed himself in Northwestern and basketball lore by being the arm that launched an all-time great Big Ten moment:
Like Lumpkin, Taphorn went undrafted but unfortunately he did not find himself on a Summer League roster. He signed a partial contract with KK Zadar out of Zadar, Croatia, which is kind of similar to the 10-day contract the NBA utilizes, but the trial period is longer than 10 days.
The Northwestern Wildcats are a legitimate threat in the college basketball landscape and their two departures won’t leave too large of a void for Coach Collins to fill. The returning experience and momentum is on the Wildcats’ side and they need to adjust to life being the hunted, as opposed to being the hunter.
This team certainly has another NCAA Tournament run in them and they will look to crack the top four in the Big Ten standings while keeping one eye on the league title.