Two seasons ago, Northwestern made history when the basketball team competed in its first March Madness tournament. Last season, the hype for Northwestern’s basketball program reached a new high, earning a preseason top 25 ranking. The expectations were high, and college basketball analyst Clark Kellogg predicted NU to make the Final Four before the season. Unfortunately, none of the projections panned out, and Northwestern did not even make the NIT. For the current season, Northwestern has been playing without Bryant Mcintosh, Scottie Lindsey, and Gavin Skelly, who were all seniors from last year.
This year, the team has added sharpshooter graduate transfer Ryan Taylor, along with the long-awaited appearance of Boston College transfer A.J. Turner. Northwestern is also without two backups in point guard Isiah Brown and forward Rapolas Ivanauskas, with Brown transferring to Grand Canyon University and Ivanauskas transferring to Colgate. In addition, Northwestern’s head coach Chris Collins has recruited his best players ever with four star forwards Pete Nance and Miller Kopp, in addition to center Ryan Young. Although Northwestern initially landed guard Jordan Lathon as a part of this recruiting class, NU revoked his admission in late May of 2018 for unknown reasons.
With the loss of key Northwestern players, many college basketball “experts” believe that the team will finish somewhere in the bottom of the Big Ten. Given the energy NU has displayed during the off-season, along with the acquisition of key transfers and recruits this season, I have become excited about the prospects for this season.
To start the season, Northwestern is 9-5. NU’s losses include Fresno State, Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Michigan State. Fresno State is one of Joe Lunardi’s bubble tournament teams, but regardless, this defeat represents a horrific loss for Northwestern, with the team losing in a blowout on Thanksgiving. The game took place during an early season matchup, and Northwestern appeared flustered by Fresno State’s full court pressure. On the other hand, Northwestern lost nail biters with regards to most of the other defeats. In the loss to Indiana University, now #21 ranked Indiana, Northwestern played an early afternoon game at Assembly Hall, losing the game by two in the final seconds. At home, against undefeated and now #2 Michigan, NU had an amazing comeback after falling behind by double digits in the second half. In the end, NU lost by two in the final seconds when Ryan Taylor missed a game-winning shot. Finally, in the game against Oklahoma, Northwestern lost in overtime at home.
With the wins and losses this season, observers can see both Northwestern’s strengths and weaknesses. NU is very lengthy and plays great team defense. Additionally, with redshirt senior forward Vic Law, and true senior center Dererk Pardon, NU has great star power and leadership. Northwestern also has solid depth with true Big Ten athletes throughout the roster, a major improvement when compared to previous years. As for the weaknesses, the team can become very cold from the field during stretches, the team struggles with turnovers, and the players face significant challenges closing out games. For Northwestern’s cold stretches, they constantly find themselves in multi-minute runs without a single field goal in many of the losses, a scenario that takes place even with some of the wins. The offense either becomes stagnant and settles for poor shots or the team fails to handle high-pressure defense.
For the turnovers, Northwestern actually has 11.8 turnovers per game, which is the fifth fewest number for all Big Ten teams. This statistic is misleading since Bryant Mcintosh left, and Jordan Lathon ultimately did not join the team, so the team has found itself in a tough position with the point guard position. So far, NU has started A.J. Turner who is 6’7″, which is the typical height for a wing or forward. However, based on NU’s lack of skilled point guards and Turner’s high assist numbers, Collins starts him at point guard.
Finally, Northwestern’s last major issue involves the team’s failure to close out tight games against solid opponents. This challenge has become a recurring problem for Northwestern teams in the Chris Collins era. When games approach the end, NU simply becomes stagnant on offense, relies too heavily on hero ball, and carries out awful shot selection. If the Wildcats ran their sets to close out games, the team could have much more success when trying to score in the final minutes. Two seasons ago, the NU tournament team faced early season struggles closing out games (with heartbreaking losses to Butler, Notre Dame and Minnesota), but the team overcame the losses and learned how to win close games by the end of the season. During that season, NU won close, quality games late in the season against Michigan, Maryland (in the Big Ten tournament), and Vanderbilt in the NCAA tournament. This trend in the 2016-2017 basketball season can provide inspiration for NU to correct the problem and ultimately compete in the tournament. Given this team’s lack of experience, NU should see improvement in this category as the players continue to build chemistry together.
In terms of Northwestern’s season outlook, the team does not have many quality wins. So far, NU’s best wins are Utah, DePaul, and Georgia Tech. None of these teams will be in the NCAA tournament. In order to make a run for a birth in the field of 68 teams, Northwestern will need to start picking up quality wins during the second part of the Big Ten slate. While NU is much better than the resume shows, the team must move forward by picking up quality wins. If NU can win 10 Big Ten games, with a few over ranked opponents, then the Wildcats will earn a shot to play in March Madness.
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