LAST SEASON – Continued steady progress has been made by this program since Chris Collins took over. He started out by improving the defense and rebounding…not that the Cats became sensational in either area, but they were improved, better than they’d been in years, and the increased toughness and compete levels started to produce some results. They went 20-12 overall and 8-10 in the league, both the best they’ve done under Collins and suggestive that even better things are ahead. Now, they lost 7 footer Alex Olah and streaky guard Tre Demps, so there are pieces to replace, but the Cats are bringing back a lot of guys and are adding another solid recruiting class, plus they’ll get forward Vic Law back after he missed last season.

THIS SEASON

Everything begins at the point, where 6’3″ junior Bryant McIntosh is the straw that stirs the Wildcat drink. He averaged 13.8ppg. Had just shy of a 3:1 A/TO ratio. Put it on himself to try to make big plays in big moments. Now, he can use continued refinement. For such a smart player, he can still struggle with shot selection in key moments. His 42/37% shooting could come up another notch potentially. He can get better defensively as well. Even taking all of that into account, though, he might be the best point guard in this conference next season, even considering Melo Trimble opted to come back to school. I think he’s that good and set to get even better.

Replacing Tre Demps’ almost 16 ppg will be interesting. I suspect we’ll see Vic Law back in more of a perimeter role. He (and not McIntosh) was the headline recruit two years ago and he had a lot of good moments as a freshman. He shot 39/36% as a freshman and has the potential to be a big time scorer as he continues to mature. They expect him to be 100% after shoulder surgery.

The Cats don’t have a lot of other perimeter options. Junior Scottie Lindsey saw his role increase from his first year and played reasonably well. He’s got size at 6’5″, is a good shooter (43/40%) and can play effective defense at times with his length. He may end up as a starter but regardless he’s going to play a lot of minutes.

Jordan Ash played sparingly as a freshman but may see an uptick next season as the Cats need to find some bench minutes among their perimeter guys. Over time, they think he can play both on or off the ball.

Freshman Isiah Brown is a 6’3″ combo guard from Seattle who was something of a late bloomer, committing to NU over Washington and others. He was a big time scorer in HS but it remains to be seen how quickly he adjusts to the Big Ten level. If he can even give Collins 10-12 good minutes per game, that’ll be a big boost.

The Cats lost Olah, but they have a nice collection of young and varied big men to work with and I think this may be the best collective frontcourt we’ve seen in Evanston in a long time.

It starts with athletic 6’6″ senior Sanjay Lumpkin, who has been a regular starter for much of his NU career. Lumpkin is a reluctant shooter but wasn’t bad when he did toss one up last season (49/36%). However, his real value is as a rebounder (5 per game) , defender and energy guy. He’s not as skilled as some of the younger guys on this team but I’d bet on his retaining a significant role because of his experience, his athletic ability and his grit.

Aaron Falzon was the best of a good group of young Cat big men last season. The 6’8″ sophomore is mostly a perimeter shooter at this point, and he hit 35% from deep on the season (38% overall). The next step for Falzon is to get a little tougher on the glass and start to vary his offensive game a bit, but he’s a weapon as-is because of his size and how well he shoots, forcing defenses to account for him on the arc.

Derek Pardon was going to be redshirted and then some injuries hit, which forced Collins to play the 6’9″ soph at the center position. It ended up being a positive, as Pardon played well and got some necessary experience, setting him up well heading into this season. He averaged 6.7ppg and 4.2 rpg but could see those numbers go up significantly with a bigger role. Pardon plays within himself on offense, but at times he was exploited defensively, so that’s the end where NU will look for big improvement from him. Long term though, he looks like he could be a double/double guy…he’s a great finisher and he’s active and strong enough to improve as a rebounder.

Nathan Taphorn is a 6’7″ senior whose role is basically limited to one thing…shooting the three. He does that well enough (40%) to earn consistent if somewhat limited minutes. I expect that will continue, as there’s always a need for at least a small role for a guy who can stick the deep ball.

Gavin Skelly is a 6’8″ junior who is a try-hard guy and that works for him. He might see his role reduced slightly with some young talent coming on board but I suspect he’ll still find a way to get some minutes going forward, as he plays extremely hard and gives this team a bit of a physical edge.

Collins landed two of his better recruits in this class in Rapolas Ivanauskas and Barret Benson. Ivanauskas is a guy who seems to confuse people a bit. People see the Slavic name and size at 6’9″ and expect a stereotypical “Euro” player who shoots well and is probably not a superlative athlete. In this case, that’s not exactly correct. He can supposedly shoot a bit but that’s not his strength. He’s seen as an athletic, VERY active kid who uses his motor to get things done at both ends…they think he can be really good defensively in time. Benson is a legit center at 6’10” 240. I’ve seen him play in AAU and thought he has a chance to be a pretty good Big Ten level big man in time. He’s not an athlete and he’ll need to get stronger, but he’s very fundamentally sound in the post, has legitimate size to take up space in the lane, and he’s got some toughness. I think both of these guys will play and improve NU’s frontcourt significantly…not that either will be an immediate star but rather that they’ll both be effective and thus lengthen the rotation.

BOTTOM LINE – Could this be the year Northwestern ends the 0-for and earns a Tournament bid? It’s possible. I think McIntosh is very good and I like their frontcourt group collectively…no stars but a number of good players in the mix. To me, Vic Law may be the key to the whole deal. NU needs to find perimeter scoring and I’m not sure where they get it if not from him.

I think they’re probably one more year away from breaking through, but I don’t rule out that they could get it done this year. Finding that perimeter scoring is critical, though. I think they’re good enough defensively to get there.