2017-2018 ITH Season Preview: Northwestern Wildcats

  • 10/10/2017 10:34 am in

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, our Big Ten team previews continue with a look at Northwestern.

Northwestern was a national media darling last season. The Wildcats reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history and took Gonzaga to the wire in the second round.

That success has expectations much higher entering the 2017-18 season for the Wildcats, who return four starters from a team that won 10 Big Ten games and finished last season 24-12.

The headlining returnee is senior guard Bryant McIntosh, who averaged 14.8 points, 5.2 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game last season. The Greensburg product struggled with his efficiency (44.1 percent on 2s, 30.7 percent on 3s), but had the second best assist rate in the Big Ten. McIntosh is an excellent free throw shooter at 87 percent, but needs to shoot it much better from the perimeter for Northwestern to reach its ceiling.

Joining McIntosh in the backcourt is senior Scottie Lindsey, who averaged 14.1 points last season but was slowed in the final half of the season due to mononucleosis. Lindsey shot a putrid 28 percent on 3s in Big Ten play, but is one of the league’s better defenders.

Junior Jordan Ash, sophomore Isiah Brown and freshman Anthony Gaines could all figure into the backcourt rotation. Brown averaged 6.3 points per game last season and is the most proven of the trio.

The frontcourt returns a solid stable of pieces despite losing starter Sanjay Lumpkin and reserve Nathan Taphorn to graduation. Junior Vic Law is one of the league’s best athletes and averaged 12.3 points in 32.1 minutes per game last season. Law hit 39.9 percent of his 3s last season, but just 40.6 percent of his 2s. Given his athleticism, the 6-foot-7 Law should be finishing at a much higher clip.

Junior Dererk Pardon is an above average offensive rebounder and finisher who holds down the center position despite being just 6-foot-8. Pardon was fifth among Big Ten players in offensive rebounding percentage and shot 61.7 percent on 2s in conference games. Sophomore Barret Benson could take on a bigger role after averaging just eight minutes per game last season. The 6-foot-10 Benson is a skilled back to the basket big man and could potentially play alongside Pardon is certain situations.

Three other forwards on the roster to watch include redshirt Aaron Falzon, redshirt freshman Rapolas Ivanauskas and senior Gavin Skelly. Falzon missed last season with an injury, but made 63 3-pointers as a freshman. The 6-foot-8 Skelly averaged 17.7 minutes per game last season and shot close to 47 percent from the field. Ivanauskas, a former top 150 recruit, also sat out last season with an injury. He could push Skelly for minutes and provides size and versatility at 6-foot-9.

One wrinkle that Northwestern will have to adjust to this season is playing its games off campus due to Welsh Ryan Arena’s renovations. The Wildcats will play home games at All State Arena, which is 30 minutes away from campus.

Bottom Line: Northwestern was a very good defensive team last season, but has plenty of room to grow offensively. The Wildcats ranked just ninth in offensive efficiency in conference games and the top three returnees – McIntosh, Lindsey and Law – all shot below 40 percent on 3s. Collins did a terrific job guiding the program to its first NCAA tournament appearance a season earlier than many expected, but he’ll be dealing with expectations for the first time this season as a head coach. Northwestern is being picked in the top four in most preseason projections, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wildcats finish in the middle of the pack if the offense doesn’t take a significant step forward.

Quotable: “The end game for us is to be a nationally relevant program year in and year out. This is a place where you can have it all now, go to a great city, go to a great school, play high-level basketball, get a great degree. I am noticing a difference when I talk to those coaches/players across the country.” – Collins on building Northwestern into a nationally relevant basketball brand.

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  • John D Murphy

    Collins has done a great job. I would knock on his door if I were Louisville

  • bball at nick’s

    Chris Collins is the coach I fear the most when it comes to competition against Archie. The sooner he spruces up his resume for Duke the better, LOL.

  • bball at nick’s

    He’s too much of a Northerner. Durham is probably as far south as he’ll go, and only because it’s kinda East Coast. LOL.

  • TomJameson

    I think NW is legit. Returning 4 starters is good, but their biggest problem might be front court depth. Sound familiar?

  • VOXAC30

    Maybe it is just me but Louisville at this point seems to be poison to any coach on the rise.

  • Arch Puddington

    I’m going to have to disagree with my esteemed colleagues here at ITH regarding the greatness of Chris Collins., at least for now. Yes, he just coached them to the greatest season in Northwestern history, but that is from the “world’s tallest midget” category of distinctions. I would point out that just a couple of years ago Tim Miles had Nebraska on what looked like a similar arc to the one Northwestern is now on. In 2013-14 Nebraska finished 11-7 in the conference (Northwestern was 10-8 last year), then made it to the NCAA tournament. And like Northwestern, they had some veteran talent returning, leading many to think their success would continue. It didn’t. Injuries, early departures, and the overall difficulty of a non-traditional power sustaining success in a power 5 conference led to a more or less inevitable reversion to the mean. Since then they have finished 12th, 11th, and 12th in the conference, and Tim Miles is no longer on anyone’s list of “Who’s Hot”.

    No, it will take more than one successful season for me to conclude Collins is “great’. Which is not to say that he won’t have more than one good season. Northwestern finished 32nd in Kenpom’s defensive ratings last year, which is really good for a team without elite talent (Dayton was 43rd, for whatever that is worth). And his 2018 recruiting class does have the #76 and #100 players in ESPN’s rankings.But I would point out that Northwestern lost 8 of its last 14 games last season, including once to the then-collapsing Hoosiers, who had lost 7 of their previous 8 games. And for whatever reason, Northwestern only has one incoming freshman this year, a player not ranked in the top 100. So it is very much an open question as to whether he can sustain the success he had last year. If he does it for another 2-3 years, then he can begin to truly take his place near to the top of NCAA coaches

  • Arch Puddington

    Given the money they will have available, the history of the program, the facilities, and all the rest, Louisville will be a highly coveted position as long as it doesn’t get the death penalty. And even then, some up-and-coming coach who could negotiate a long-term guaranteed deal would jump at the chance. Wouldn’t you? You’d be under no pressure for multiple years, and you’d have all the resources of one of the top 10 programs in college basketball history at your disposal. Bring in some recruits, build up your program over 4-5 years, and know that even if you never got Louisville back to the top, you’d earn enough money to take of yourself and your family for life. I think there may be some short term uncertainty surrounding their fate that will deter big name coaches, but unless something wholly unprecedented takes place, they will soon be waving millions of dollars at a new coach, and someone will take it.

  • VOXAC30

    Love your stuff Arch

  • Arch Puddington

    Ha! Thanks.

  • E Foy McNaughton

    The ceiling at NW is much lower than the ceiling at Louisville – which is still a top 10 program…

    Top coaches will look.

  • iugradmark

    The podcast they had a while back was eye opening for me. I’m not saying that Collins won’t take a big job but he has a pretty good job now. Makes over $3 million per year. Grew up in and loves living in Chicago. They are upgrading the facilities and he plays in a major conference. Expectations are getting higher but he is not expected to be the top team in the Big so there is less pressure. I don’t know his personal objectives but he is in a pretty good spot already. He won’t win NCAA there but he can have a nice career and make a lot of money without killing himself.

  • VOXAC30

    Hey I could be wrong and I know money talks but Louisville will have a long road back to the top. It will be difficult to recover they of course will but it will take a 6 years or longer.

  • VOXAC30

    I will gladly say “see… I told you so” six years from now! Lol

  • Gladeskat

    Arch, while I agree Collins has to prove NU can win more than one season, did you consider NU’s injury & illness situation last year? NU had two players (1 starter) out for the season as well as two star players (Pardon & Lindsey) out or hampered by injury and illness for prolonged stretches. Lindsey was either out or recovering from mono the latter half of the season. Once Lindsey regained his strength, NU beat Michigan, Rutgers, Maryland, and Vanderbilt while playing Purdue close.

  • Arch Puddington

    All fair points, but they do more to excuse some struggles than to support greatness. Even loaded teams can be limited by injuries, and a coach can only be as good as his players. But acknowledging the obstacles his team faced doesn’t by itself support claims that he is great, it just means that we need more data before forming a firm conclusion. I’ll reserve judgment on him one way or the other for at least another couple of years.