LAST SEASON – Year 2 of the Chris Collins era ended with exactly the same conference record being posted as in Year 1…6-12. Yet, while the performance in 13-14 was impressive because NU did it with grit, toughness and not a ton of talent, Year 2 is actually much more encouraging for the long run prognosis of the program because you could see young players contributing to wins who appear to have the potential to be really good Big Ten players. Northwestern showed an ability to play a little bit faster at times than we’ve seen in years…NU’s two previous coaches, Bill Carmody and Kevin O’Neill, were both advocates of slower paced basketball on offense, so it’s jarring to see the Cats ever push the ball on the break, but slowly and steadily, Collins is bringing that style to Evanston as he adds players capable of succeeding that way.

Along with talent infusion and style changes, I think Collins has at least started the process of changing the mindset within NU’s program. Last season, I saw more confidence, more belief in the players that they belonged on a Big Ten court and might actually be the better team than I ever recall, even during seasons where Northwestern was competitive (Carmody had some of those). Call it swagger, call it whatever you want, but I think the job Collins’ had to do was about more than simply improving the talent base. He had to change a mindset which has existed for decades in Evanston. That is really, really hard to do. Mark Dantonio is an example we’re all very familiar with and though the challenge he faced wasn’t nearly as difficult as the one Collins has in front of him, I think what he’s done in completely changing the culture around MSU football is an example of the kind of thing Collins is attempting to do in Evanston. Northwestern has no basketball culture in existence. They’ve never made the NCAA Tournament. For most of my life as a follower of the Big Ten, going back to the mid/late 70s, they have been the worst program in the league (this has been true at least 80% of the time over that period, I’d say). That is a LOT for a coach to overcome but I’m seeing signs Collins is getting there. In addition to the 6 wins they registered, they lost 5 games by 5 or less or in OT…turn even three of those in the other direction and you have a .500 conference record, cause for celebration in that program. They’re moving in the right direction. I was very skeptical of the Collins hire when it was made…I thought Carmody had done a good job at that program, with its limitations, and but for some terrible luck probably would have broken through with one or two NCAA appearances. I also questioned Collins himself…Duke assistants have had a very mixed track record at best and I saw no reason to believe that Collins would be an exception. I was likely very wrong about him. I’ve seen enough to believe that. He’s infusing this program with a combination of improved talent and toughness they haven’t had previously. I like the way he’s conducted himself and I think he’s the right guy to get the job done there.

RETURNING PLAYERS

Tre Demps is a 6’3″ senior guard who had something of a breakthrough season individually in 14-15. He led NU in scoring at 12.5 ppg on 42/36% shooting. Demps is perhaps one of the bigger examples of the mindset change on offense from Carmody to Collins. Collins isn’t looking for a free for all but he does give his players more room to push the envelope…some of the shots Demps took last year would have gotten him rooted to the pine if Carmody were still around. Yet, Demps finds ways to make enough of those questionable shots to keep him on the court for the current coach. For a team which still can occasionally struggle to score enough points, a guy like Demps who is fearless and capable of going on serious hot streaks is a big positive. For all his aggression, he’s also got just shy of a 2:1 assist to TO ratio, so it doesn’t bleed into his passing or playmaking.

Alex Olah is a 7 foot senior center whom I believe is one of the more underrated guys in the entire conference. Olah averaged 11.7ppg and 6.9 rpg for the Cats as a junior. I think at times he settles for shots away from the rim (he “only” shot 49% overall which isn’t terrible but not where his numbers should be as a big post option) but I also think some of that is frustration coming out of not getting the ball enough from the NU guards. If I were Collins, one of my primary missions over the offseason is making it more of a priority to get Olah the ball on the blocks…I saw way too many occasions where NU’s guards simply weren’t patient enough and if you are fortunate enough to have a 7 footer on your roster who actually can score in the paint, you are handicapping your team if you don’t get him the ball a ton. Defensively, he’s not the most mobile guy but he takes up a lot of space inside and he did average almost 2 blocks per game, so he’s contributing there as well.

Bryant McIntosh is the #1 reason I’m bullish on the future of Northwestern basketball. The 6’3″ sophomore point guard was a low hype recruit last season who burst onto the Big Ten scene and very quickly gave Northwestern the kind of presence they’ve all too rarely had at that position. NU had some decent point guard play under Carmody…Juice Thompson was effective and Dave Sobolewski was early in his career as well. However, they didn’t have the physical package McIntosh possesses. His size gives him the ability to finish well in traffic. He’s a decent to good athlete and his mindset seems to always be set on “attack.” He can also hit from range (36% on threes). Where he needs to improve is his decision making. He could get reckless at times and though Collins wants him to play aggressively, he’d like fewer mistakes out of his young floor leader. I like his odds for improvement next season in that area and going forward. I think he’s got a chance to be an All Big Ten player before he’s through in Evanston.

Vic Law is another sophomore with a bright future at Northwestern. The 6’7″ forward was considered the bell cow of the Cats’ freshman class last season and though he struggled with consistency, he showed plenty of indications as to why he was so highly regarded. His size and athleticism at the forward position gives him a chance to be effective inside the arc but he also shot 36% from three, so he can be a versatile offensive player at the Big Ten level as well. He also averaged 4.8 rpg, second on the team behind Olah and I think that’s what I like best about him…he can be a guy who impacts the game in multiple ways.

Scottie Lindsey is a 6’5″ sophomore who was also somewhat unknown coming into the Big Ten last year but proved himself to be a guy capable of being a solid rotation option at the very least. He’s not quite smooth enough to play point guard but he can help as a secondary ballhandler. He’s a decent athlete and his size on the wing at 6’5″ is a big positive. He was a decent shooter (41/35%) and looks to be an active defensive player as well. I’m not sure what his ceiling is at this point but I expect his playing time to expand a bit from last season’s 15 mpg.

Sanjay Lumpkin is an athletic 6’6″ junior forward who posted good numbers and started 26 of NU’s 32 games last season, but I felt his overall impact decreased just a bit. He was a key as a freshman to NU’s Big Ten run because he gave the Cats a tough, gritty defensive presence. He’s still capable of doing that but I think he can be more as well, he just needs to be more assertive on offense. Lumpkin shot 53/37% last season but he did it on relatively few attempts…in fact, he averaged only 3 FGA per game last season. He doesn’t need to become George Gervin but I think he has more in him than he showed as a sophomore. Regardless, his physicality and athleticism inside as an undersized 4 man is going to be a key once again for this team as they battle bigger opponents, either as a starter again or more likely as a key reserve.

Nathan Taphorn is a 6’7″ junior who finally settled into a serious role about midway through last season. Taphorn is a sniper, plain and simple. 40 of his 70 attempts from the field last season came from three and he hit an impressive 50% of those. Taphorn probably isn’t a good enough athlete nor does he play with enough physical presence to be likely to emerge as a starter or even a heavy minutes guy but he does have a role on this team. He averaged 11 mpg last season and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that tick up to somewhere between 15 and 20, though his PT will likely vary substantially from game to game, depending upon matchups. When you shoot the ball the way he does, though, coaches typically will find a way to get you on the floor some.

Gavin Skelly is a 6’8″ 220lbs sophomore who served as the backup big man at times last season. Skelly isn’t a true post player physically but he has some size and more importantly he showed a willingness to bang and compete in the paint. He basically averaged 1 rebound every 4 minutes of playing time, which is a pretty good rate. He’s also a “dirty work” sort of player but he’s also got some skill..hit 49% of his shots from the floor last season, which amounted to about 1 attempt per game. I don’t know if Skelly will ever emerge as a starter at Northwestern but I do know he’s the kind of guy good teams need somewhere in their rotation.

Joey Van Zegeren might be the most important addition to next year’s team. He sat out after transfering from Virginia Tech midway through the season, where the 6’10” 240lbs big man was averaging 9.8ppg and 5.3 rpg this season. He is exactly the kind of player Northwestern needed to add. As a grad transfer he’s eligible immediately and will give Olah immediate help in the paint. Northwestern actually having two guys 6’10” and up on the court simultaniously will be a very strange thing to behold, especially given that both can actually play.