With the start of college basketball season on the horizon, we’ll be taking a long look at the conference at large as well as Indiana’s roster over the next month. Today, we continue our Big Ten team previews with the Northwestern Wildcats.
While Northwestern finished just ninth in the Big Ten last season during Chris Collins’ third year at the helm, it was by far the team’s best performance under the former Duke assistant.
Despite losing promising sophomore Vic Law for the season due to a torn labrum in his left shoulder in the preseason, the Wildcats finished over .500 (20-12) for the first time in Collins’ tenure and ranked a respectable 78th in the final KenPom rankings. The team’s strength on offense was its ability to take care of the ball (15.8 turnover percentage, 31st nationally) and on defense it held opponents to just a 46.5 eFG percentage (34th nationally).
But heading into the 2016-2017 campaign, the Wildcats have lost two key pieces that were big factors on both sides of the ball. And it’s why they may ultimately be hanging closer to the bottom of the Big Ten than the top heading into Collins’ fourth year.
Part of the reason Northwestern’s defense held opponents to just a 43.4 two-point percentage (19th best in country) was senior Alex Olah’s shotblocking presence (6.7 block percent, eighth best in conference) around the rim. Olah also used the second most possessions on offense last season for the Wildcats. He’s now gone. Fellow senior Tre Demps has also departed. Demps used the third most possessions on offense last season for Northwestern, played 90.9 percent of available minutes and had a ridiculously low turnover percentage of just 8.8.
Still, the Wildcats are not devoid of talent. Bryant McIntosh returns for a junior season and provides a steady presence in the backcourt as one of the Big Ten’s best distributors. His assist rate of 37.3 was second in the conference to Denzel Valentine a year ago.
Law’s return from injury gives Collins more versatility in the lineup. Forward Aaron Falzon proved capable as a freshman (8.4 PPG, 9.6 turnover percentage) and figures to gobble up more possessions and minutes with Demps and Olah gone. As the only regular to shoot over 40 percent (40.9) last season, junior Scottie Lindsey gives the Wildcats 3-point shooting.
Sophomore Dererk Pardon, who was going to redshirt last year before Olah got injured, should be one of the Big Ten’s best rebounders. As a freshman, Pardon ranked in the top ten in the league in offensive rebounding percentage. Senior Nathan Taphorn and junior Gavin Skelly will help provide frontcourt depth.
Collins also welcomes in a pair of local Chicago-area recruits to the team this season: Hinsdale South product Barret Benson (247 Composite rank: 153) and Rapolas Ivanauskas from Barrington (247 Composite rank: 147).
Bottom Line: The loss of Demps and Olah is a lot to make up for, but Collins has enough talent on his roster – and as a coach – to make the Wildcats competitive. It was recently announced the team will be playing its 2017-2018 season at Allstate Arena as Welsh-Ryan Arena undergoes a $110 million renovation. The new facilities may help Collins on the recruiting trail as he competes against the conference elite. But for this year at least, Northwestern may once again be on the outside looking in come Selection Sunday.
Quotable: “It’s still all about relationships, fit, opportunity. When (recruits) see now that we have the very best of facilities — with locker rooms, with space and sports medicine and now our arena — it just adds to the academic prestige, to being in Chicago, being in the Big Ten. Now all of a sudden, these guys have it all. It helps with recruiting, it helps with the perception of our program. People realize that there’s a major commitment for us to be great in basketball.” — Collins on the upcoming improvements to Welsh-Ryan Arena
(Photo credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)