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2019-’20 Northwestern Wildcats Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Northwestern Wildcats and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2019-’20 season.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Northwestern Nuccio DiNuzzo-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-’20 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-’20 ‘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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It’s hard to recreate the joy of being a child in the summer. It’s a wonderful time in life and perhaps no moment embodies that experience better than going to an amusement park. While the experience may not be as pleasant for those with a few more years under their belts, it’s something that’s pretty special for a child. A day dedicated to hanging out with friends, family, or both, riding roller coasters, and eating junk food.

And perhaps the most exciting moment is riding a roller coaster and waiting for the eventual drop after climbing up the hill. The repetitious clicks, followed by the quick and powerful drop down the slope. The prolonged excitement followed by the speed of flying down the tracks.

In a lot of ways, this has been the tale of Northwestern the last few years.

After reaching the program’s pinnacle in 2017, it’s all been downhill. Northwestern dropped from 24 wins to 15 in 2018 and then bottomed out with a 13-19 overall record last season. And many think it could get worse this year, with star players like Vic Law and Dererk Pardon departing this offseason.

Perhaps the roller coaster comparison is a bit hyperbolic, but it’s hard to describe that descent any other way. The Wildcats build to that 2017 season for decades. It took years of heartbreak to finally make the NCAA Tournament. And after all that hype and excitement, things came sliding down in the blink of an eye.

Because since that magical season, things have, uh, not been great.

Northwestern followed up its NCAA Tournament appearance in 2017 with a 15-17 campaign and then dropped to 13-19 last season. During last season, the Wildcats were probably out of realistic at-large consideration by January and closed the season by losing 12 of the team’s final 13 games. A pretty rough way to end what was once a pretty hopeful campaign.

And things don’t necessarily look like they’re going to be better, at least on paper, this time around. After all, Law and Pardon were the core players on that team and the program isn’t adding an elite recruiting class this year. It’s going to take quite an effort to overcome those expectations and rise back up. The good news is that there is still some talent on the roster and a number of wildcards.

So, can Northwestern get it done? Let’s take a look at the Wildcats.

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 Wolverines, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and InsideNU Manager Noah Coffman breaking down Northwestern’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2018-’19 Season Performance

  • Record: 13-19 (4-16)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #74
  • NET Rating: #88
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Last season wasn’t a great one for the Wildcats. The team may not have been terrible, but it still lagged significantly behind others in the league. Last year’s group was a far cry from the special group that broke the program’s NCAA Tournament curse just two years earlier, finishing with a losing record and nearly 40 spots lower on KenPom than the legendary 2016-’17 squad.

What’s interesting is that things started out pretty promisingly. Nobody was picking the Wildcats to win the league, but the team had some quality players like Vic Law and got off to a decent start. Northwestern was able to jump out to a 6-1 record before entering Big Ten play and held an 8-3 record through 11 games. That run also included a few wins over Power Five opponents in Georgia Tech and Utah.

Unfortunately, three tight losses in December took the air out of the team’s sails. The Wildcats dropped a close one on the road to Indiana, couldn’t close against Michigan at home, and then fell in overtime to Oklahoma a few weeks later. All three games were decided in the final minutes and came against quality opponents.

It would be disingenuous to suggest Northwestern would have had a great season if it had won those three games, but how much differently would things have felt if the Wildcats had closed things out there? Had Northwestern grabbed those three wins, it would have been 12-1 heading into a showdown with Michigan State on the road and would already have had at least three quality wins under its belt. Perhaps that confidence would have helped in Big Ten play, when Northwestern consistently failed to close out games.

And as mentioned, that was the ultimate downfall for Northwestern last season. The team was dreadful in late January and beyond, losing 12 of its final 13 games. That stretch included home losses to Minnesota, Penn State, and Rutgers, two losses to Illinois, and a loss to Ohio State. The lone win came at home against Ohio State in early March. Notably, that win came by a final score of 68-50, implying just how badly Northwestern had under performed in the games leading up to that matchup.

Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a team that massively underachieved or missed out on success due to some bad luck. The Wildcats lost some close games, but the team did still finish 74th on KenPom. Though those early losses didn’t help things, it wasn’t like Northwestern was a Final Four team or something. The Wildcats would have been fortunate to make it into the NIT last season. Still, a few more breaks and last season wouldn’t look nearly as bad as it does on paper right now.

Highlights of the season included non-conference wins over DePaul, Georgia Tech, and Utah and wins over Indiana and Ohio State during Big Ten play. Low points of the season included regular season losses to Fresno State, Illinois, and Rutgers and the Big Ten Tournament loss to Illinois.

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

2. Offseason Exits

Despite not having a banner year, Northwestern got hit pretty hard with attrition over the last few months. The Wildcats lost seven players from last year’s roster, including a handful of key contributors. These players were Jordan Ash, Barret Benson, Aaron Falzon, Charlie Hall, Vic Law, Dererk Pardon, and Ryan Taylor. Losing seven players off a team that was well outside contention for the NCAA Tournament.

The most significant departures come from Law and Pardon. The two both played more than 75 percent of the team’s minutes last season and were some of the team’s biggest contributors. Law was the team’s best offensive weapon and Pardon was really efficient down low. Both were also part of that legendary group that reached the program’s first NCAA Tournament just a few years ago.

Benson, Falzon, and Taylor are also notable departures. None of the three were super impressive on the court over the last few years, but all were valuable bench pieces for the Wildcats last season. Taylor was the most notable, starting for much of the season for the team. Benson was also the player many had circled as most likely to replace Pardon. His departure left many scratching their heads.

The final departures don’t look particularly damaging on paper. Ash played less than six percent of the team’s minutes last season and Hall barely played at all. Neither of these two should sound any alarms for fans this offseason.

Northwestern got hit hard with departures this offseason. There’s no sugarcoating things here. But the good news is that little of this should have taken the program by surprise. After all, the three most notable departures (Law, Pardon, and Taylor) were all seniors. Collins and his staff had to see this coming. Fans hope they have a replacement plan ready to go.

3. New Additions

This season, the Wildcats will be adding a variety of new pieces to the roster. This includes three new recruits, and three walk-ons. The incoming recruits are Robbie Beran, Daniel Buie, and Jared Jones. Buie is listed as a point guard, Beran as a power forward, and Jones as a center. Beran is rated as a four-star prospect by 247Sports and the others are listed as three-stars.

The recruit receiving the most attention is certainly Beran. He’s listed at 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds and is ranked 110th nationally by 247Sports. One would expect that he will help provide depth in the frontcourt behind players like Pete Nance.

Buie and Jones both have potential, but project as bench options this season. Jones needs to add a bit more size and Buie was rated outside the top 300 nationally. Wildcats fans hope they can provide depth and develop into valuable options down the line.

The transfer additions are Chase Audige and Pat Spencer. Both are interesting prospects moving forward. Spencer arrives after playing lacrosse for four years at Loyola (MD). He projects as a guard, but nobody knows what to expect. He does have some overseas experience and averaged 14.5 points and 6.3 assists per game. But honestly, nobody really has any idea what to expect out of him.

Audige is the other transfer addition and arrives from William & Mary. However, he will have to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. As such, we will have to check in on him next year. The walk-on additions come from Roy Dixon, Dylan Sandhu, and Eric Zalewski. The three are not expected to contribute significantly this season.

This group of newcomers is clearly a step behind what Collins adds early on in his tenure at Northwestern. However, Beran projects to be a really nice player down the line and there’s certainly more coming along with him. If a newcomer or two can surprise, it would go a long way for the Wildcats this season and beyond.

4. Points of Optimism

Expectations change quickly in college basketball. Fans might be fine with a mediocre finish one year and furious with it the next. In a lot of ways, successful coaches become their worst enemies. Fans judge them by their previous success. If they can’t win the game they won last year, things must be getting worse.

For arguably the first time in program history, Northwestern fans and the administration have gotten to experience a shift in expectations. Collins took the program to its first NCAA Tournament in 2017 and things haven’t been the same since. Fans have gotten frustrated with the last two seasons and want the joy of returning to Selection Sunday.

And while heightened expectations might be appropriate long-term, fans seem to have forgotten the growth it took for things to culminate in 2017. Collins’ first team finished with a 134th KenPom ratings, but steadily climbed each season thereafter. He found a guard here, added a big man there, and built the core of a quality unit.

In a lot of ways, this feels like the first season in Collins’ second build. The team doesn’t look overly stacked on paper, but there are some nice pieces to build around. Anthony Gaines looks like an intriguing option in the backcourt and players like Beran and Nance project to be a really nice core to build around upfront. By season’s end, we could see the group that will lead Northwestern to the promised land once again in a year or two.

The Wildcats also might have a little more talent than some realize entering this season. Beran and Nance were both highly rated recruits and the team has plenty of solid prospects around them. In fact, Northwestern is still above teams like Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin on Verbal Commits’ team talent rankings. Illinois is getting top 25 consideration and Northwestern is arguably in the same discussion for team talent. That’s significant.

If Northwestern can get some development out of its frontcourt and find a big man down low, there are enough pieces here to compete in the Big Ten. Maybe not for the league title, but enough to pull off a few upsets.

5. Points of Concern

Every year, I have to write a preview of two like this. One where there aren’t a ton of reasons to believe the team will be great in the upcoming season. While some won’t believe me, it’s not something I love doing. The offseason is a time for optimism, not a reason to be pessimistic about your favorite team.

Northwestern is undeniably in this category at the moment. The Wildcats could surprise and perhaps some of the newcomers overachieve. However, the more likely scenario is that this team struggles significantly. Whether fans want to admit it or not, there are just a lot of major holes in this roster.

To start, it’s important to acknowledge that Northwestern wasn’t a great team last season. The Wildcats went 13-19 overall and didn’t sniff the NCAAs by season’s end. And despite a decent start, Northwestern lost 12 of its final 13 games. Some of those games were close, but that’s a horrendous finish to the season by any measure.

And unfortunately, Northwestern lost a litany of key players off that team. In fact, if one were to simply evaluate based on total win shares, Northwestern is losing its best two players, three of its top four, and four of its top six contributors from last season. And remember, those departures come from a team that had a losing record.

The hole in the frontcourt is also pretty pronounced. As mentioned above, Northwestern has some nice options like Beran and Nance down the road, but the Wildcats lost Pardon and Benson. It’s hard to envision anyone on the current roster being able to step in and replace their contributions down low. It’s not going to kill the team on a nightly basis, but could be a major issue when Northwestern faces teams with a bigger frontcourt.

It’s also important to highlight the fact that Northwestern will likely have to rely on a plethora of underclassmen this season. Gaines and AJ Turner should lock things down in the backcourt, but the rest of this team is incredibly young and inexperienced. That’s not a super encouraging sign, especially when you’re not recruiting five-star prospects.

Northwestern has the potential to overcome some of its deficits this season. However, it’s going to take quite an effort from the team’s newcomers and underclassmen. Fans have to hope this group provides the program’s base for years to come.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, there were a few obvious choices in this category. Law and Pardon were both proven players and it seemed likely that one of the two would dominate things for the Wildcats on the court. This is what our site wrote then:

This is a tough choice to make, given the seniors and experience on this team. Northwestern has veteran players who have proven themselves to be the tip of the team.

Vic Law is one of the best defenders in the Big Ten. His athleticism and ability to create shots and play off the ball makes a difference on this team. He consistently takes players out of games and opposing teams have a hard time guarding him. He’s a fifth year senior and possible Big Ten Defensive Player of The Year candidate.

On the other hand, Dererk Pardon has been consistent in the paint and has one of the best shooting percentages in the country. Northwestern’s offense is better when he’s a main factor in it. This year, it is possible that the offense will run through him. His shot blocking skills and movement in the paint gives other teams problems. Law can shoot from all over the floor. He can go inside out, shoot from deep, rebound in the paint even handle point guard duties.

Although both players could be seen as tied for best player on this team, this year, Vic Law is the top player. This team needs him on both ends of the floor and his ability to play multiple positions will be key for Northwestern this season, especially.

But with so many of those veteran players gone, it’s basically anyone’s guess as to who will be the team’s best player this time around. Gaines and Turner are probably the safer bets in the backcourt, but it’s not like either of them was dominant last year. And while Nance arrived on campus with some high expectations, he only played 23 percent of the team’s minutes last season, though part of this was due to health issues. He will need to do far more this time around to deliver.

My guess heading into the season is that Gaines or Nance earn this honor. Both have plenty of potential and should get more opportunities this time around. The darkhorse has to be Beran, who arrives on campus with high expectations as well. However, expecting anything out of a true freshman is always a risky proposition.

7. 2019-’20 Schedule Breakdown

  • 10/31 - Quincy
  • 11/8 - Merrimack
  • 11/13 - Providence
  • 11/19 - Radford
  • 11/22 - Norfolk State
  • 11/25 - vs Bradley (Fort Meyers, FL)
  • 11/27 - Kansas State or Pittsburgh (Fort Meyers, FL)
  • 12/3 - at Boston College
  • 12/8 - at Purdue
  • 12/15 - SIU-Edwardsville
  • 12/18 - Michigan State
  • 12/21 - at DePaul
  • 12/29 - Hartford
  • 1/5 - at Minnesota
  • 1/8 - at Indiana
  • 1/11 - Nebraska
  • 1/14 - Iowa
  • 1/18 - at Illinois
  • 1/21 - Maryland
  • 1/26 - Ohio State
  • 1/29 - at Michigan State
  • 2/1 - Purdue
  • 2/9 - at Rutgers
  • 2/12 - Michigan
  • 2/15 - at Penn State
  • 2/18 - at Maryland
  • 2/23 - Minnesota
  • 2/27 - Illinois
  • 3/1 - at Nebraska
  • 3/4 - at Wisconsin
  • 3/7 - Penn State

Meh. That’s about all I have with regard to this schedule. It exists. Northwestern is going to play some games. Most of the non-conference slate looks uninteresting and we generally know what to expect out of Big Ten play at this point with a 20-game slate. This is a slate that’s manufactured for a team likely out of NCAA contention.

In terms of non-conference play, the games that stand out the most are the games in Fort Meyers against Bradley and either Kansas State or Pittsburgh, and the road trips to Boston College and DePaul. All of these teams fall into the decent, but not great category. That’s good news for Northwestern because it means it might be able to steal some of these games and enter Big Ten play with some momentum.

Conference play projects to be pretty brutal for the Wildcats. The team gets double-plays with Maryland, Michigan State, and Purdue (arguably the top three teams in the league) and will also have road games against teams like Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Even with just the double-plays, that’s six games against arguably top 15 opponents.

So yeah, good luck.

The good news is that the team does get some breaks as well. After a pretty rough opening slate, Northwestern gets the following:

  • 1/11 - Nebraska
  • 1/14 - Iowa
  • 1/18 - at Illinois
  • 1/21 - Maryland
  • 1/26 - Ohio State

That’s not an “easy” stretch, but it’s manageable. If Northwestern is going to pick up some momentum, that’s probably the place to do it. Four of those five games are at home and two of those opponents could reasonably miss the NCAA Tournament. It’s an opportunity for the Wildcats to make some noise.

Overall, it’s hard to get super excited about this slate. However, there are some wins for the taking here. If the Wildcats can hit the ground running, Northwestern has a chance to get a relatively respectable record.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Daniel ‘Boo’ Buie (Fr.) - 55%
  • SG: Anthony Gaines (Jr.) - 95%
  • SF: AJ Turner (Rs. Sr.) - 90%
  • PF: Pete Nance (So.) - 90%
  • C: Ryan Young (Rs. Fr.) - 55%

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

This is probably one of the harder starting lineups to predict in the Big Ten heading into this season. Not only because the Wildcats have a few positions that are wide open, but also because several of the starters could reasonably move around the lineup. A lot is going to come down to how the newcomers develop. They could easily create a bit of a snowball effect, where they could reasonably shift people around to various spots.

In the backcourt, Gaines is a virtual lock to start. The question is who starts alongside him. Gaines could easily play at the one or two, depending on who Collins thinks would fit better in the lineup. At this point, I have Buie starting at the point. He’s gotten a fair amount of hype this offseason.

Other options in the backcourt are Ryan Greer and Patrick Spencer. Greeg saw playing time last year as a freshman behind Gaines, but didn’t look particularly impressive. His offensive rating was 63.8 and he just never got things going. As mentioned above, Spencer is a lacrosse transfer. Nobody has any idea what he could offer. If Buie, Greer, and Spencer aren’t ready, expect Collins to shift Gaines to the one and roll from there.

On the wing, Turner seems like a safe bet to start. He played monster minutes last year and was pretty consistent. He was arguably the team’s best passer and was a decent three-point shooter. The only major question for him will be whether he can play off the ball more to allow another guard on the floor. Miller Kopp should offer reserve minutes behind him.

The frontcourt is where things get really interesting. Nance seems like a safe bet to start, but who is ready to play alongside him? Beran and Jones are both newcomers and Young is coming off a redshirt. Nance could also theoretically play at the four and five with his 6-foot-10 size. However, it’s hard to see him having the size to bang down low.

My guess is that Young will grab the starting spot at the five after putting on some weight this offseason and that most of the reserve minutes will be taken by Jones. Beran will provide depth behind Nance and potentially play alongside him, depending on how the wing group develops. The nice thing is Collins should have some options in this regard.

Northwestern’s lineup has some major question marks heading into this season, but the good news is that Collins will have his choice between a plethora of different players. The Wildcats just need to find a point guard and a big to play alongside Nance. If so, this lineup doesn’t actually look half bad.

9. Team Perspective From Noah Coffman of Inside NU

“The Wildcats are just about at rock-bottom. After a disappointing season that took them to a Big Ten Tournament play-in game, Chris Collins graduated two of the best players in program history. That’s never good. Northwestern just doesn’t have a lot of returning scoring to speak of, and will have to hope for big second year leaps from Pete Nance and especially Miller Kopp in addition to steps forward offensively from AJ Turner and Anthony Gaines to not be a disaster on that side of the ball.

This team has a lot of interesting pieces, including much-discussed ex-Tewaraaton Award winner Pat Spencer, but nothing close to a go-to on the offensive side of the ball and certainly not enough right now to put together any kind of a competent Big Ten lineup. Don’t expect anything in the 2019-20 season from a group that is mired in what will almost certainly be the worst part of a rebuilding phase.” - Noah Coffman.

10. Overall Season Outlook

After the miraculous run in 2017, many Northwestern fans got comfortable with the idea of competing in the Big Ten and for NCAA Tournament appearances at season’s end. After all, if the team could do it once, why couldn’t it do it again? Collins seems to have everything rolling in Evanston and many were hoping it would be the start of something special.

Two years later and things look remarkably different. Northwestern regressed from 24 wins to 15 in the following season and dropped to a 13-19 overall record last year. And KenPom projects this year’s squad to be around the same position this time around, sitting at 87th in the site’s preseason ratings.

So, what happened?

While many would like to point the finger at this or that, it hasn’t been any one thing. It’s been a combination. Northwestern missed out on some key recruiting targets, lost some program greats, and got hit hard with some transfer departures. The Wildcats also had to do with playing off site for a season and some health issues last year. All those things add up over time and the Wildcats are set to feel the brunt of it this year.

And that will be the challenge this time around. The train is moving in the wrong direction. Northwestern needs to find a way to stop it and get things turned around. That’s what this season is about. The Wildcats need to get the program’s momentum back.

The good news is that there are some pieces to lean on. Gaines and Turner are experienced guards and the team has some high-end potential in the frontcourt with players like Beran and Nance. If the team can figure out things at point guard and get some depth production from the other freshmen, Northwestern could make some noise.

All told, it should be an interesting season. However, the issues with the roster warrant a low projection for this year. As such, I am picking Northwestern to finish 14th in the league.

Big Ten Prediction: 14th Place