NORTHWESTERN

LAST SEASON

The Streak is over! Finally, for the first time in its history, the Cats made the NCAA Tournament and even won a game once they got there, defeating Vandy before losing in controversial fashion to eventual National runner up Gonzaga in the Round of 32. That March performance capped an amazing season for Chris Collins and his team, as NU went 10-8 in the league…marking the first time since the 1959-60 season that the Cats finished with a winning conference record. That’s almost as impressive as breaking the 0-for-forever NCAA streak. 

The best part for Cat fans is that Collins seems to have established something. Last year wasn’t built on the back of one superlative player or an exceptional class…Northwestern seems to be gradually improving its recruiting pull as Collins continues to settle into the job. I don’t think this means they’ll be a consistent Big Ten title contender or even an annual NCAA participant, but I do think this is a newly competitive era for the program.

PLAYERS DEPARTING

Sanjay Lumpkin – Lumpkin will likely be remembered as the kind of gritty, dirty work performer that almost every team who has a breakthrough season for a program’s establishment seems to possess. He started every game last season for NU, contributing 6 ppg and 5.4 rpg. He also provided steady defense, with his toughness and athletic ability allowing him to guard both wings and 4 men. He’s a classic example of a guy without huge traditional production who still was a big part of his team’s success. He paved the way for what will likely be more talented and skilled guys to come in his wake.

Nathan Taphorn – Taphorn essentially did one thing in his reserve role for this team, and that was to serve as a long bomber. When you hit 47% of your threes and about 75% of your shots come from beyond the arc, that’s a pretty nice contribution. Taphorn didn’t have the athleticism or strength to do much more than that, but most successful teams need someone who can come into a game at any time and hit a big 3 and he provided that presence for NU, especially as a senior.

PLAYERS RETURNING

Bryant McIntosh – He’s one of my favorite non-MSU players in the league, and I think it’s fair to say that he’s been the most important recruit Collins has landed thus far in Evanston. He led the team at 14.8 ppg and led the league in assists (barely, over Cassius Winston), so he did the things you expect a point guard and leader to do. However, it’s also fair to note that in some ways, his junior year wasn’t fantastic, compared to what he has the potential to do. He shot a career low 31% from 3 and his assists were down by 1.5 per game over the previous season, while his turnovers were slightly up. McIntosh is an aggressive player, occasionally to a fault, but I expect him to make some progress as a senior in terms of improving decision making overall, which should make this team even better. When he’s right, few in this league or even the nation are better at the combination of going off the dribble or hitting the deep ball.

Scottie Lindsey – Lindsey took a major step forward as a junior. The 6’5″ guard became a starter and saw his scoring average climb from 6.4 to 14.1. He’s a good secondary ballhandler and gives them some length defensively on the wing. However, like McIntosh, he saw his deep shooting decline as the year went on, falling to just 32% by season’s end. I think he’s capable of better numbers than that and he and McIntosh can be one of the better perimeter scoring duos in the league.

Vic Law – The return of Law, a multi talented 6’7″ 3/4 guy, was a big key in getting NU over the post season hump last year. After missing 15-16 with an injury, Law came back in a big way, averaging 12.3 ppg and 5.8 rpg. He shot 40% from deep, showing much more consistency in his perimeter game than he’d had previously, and he also brings a nice bit of activity at the rim to the equation. Law is the kind of player from a physical perspective that NU hasn’t had very often on its roster. His combination of athletic ability and physical toughness allows him to impact the game in a variety of ways and sometimes if you’re going to win at the highest levels, you need guys who can physically do things others can’t. Law gives NU that type of player to some extent.

Derek Pardon – Pardon has gone from a guy NU was going to redshirt two years ago to being one of the better young big men in the league. He averaged 8.6 ppg on 61% shooting from the floor and grabbed a team high 8 rpg. He also blocked 50 shots, just shy of 2 per game. Pardon has the same issues most young big men struggle through, which boils down to learning how to walk the line between being aggressive and being TOO aggressive. NU has depth inside so they can afford to let Pardon continue to figure that out without worrying that it will definitively cost them games, but he’s the best big man on the roster, so the more he plays, the better it is for their chances of winning. I expect his offensive game to take another step forward as he continues to hone his post skills and he should once again be a defensive presence in the paint and function as one of the better rebounders in the Big Ten.

Isiah Brown – Brown is a 6’2″ sophomore who demonstrated good quickness and overall dynamism to his game as a backup combo guard. However, he also showed that there’s a lot of learning to do in terms of shot selection, game management and decisions in general. He has the athletic package to be a very good player but needs to make strides in the judgment he employs in order to become a valuable reserve and perhaps a future starter. If he can figure some of that stuff out, he could become a very important guy in NU’s rotation.

Gavin Skelly – Skelly is a 6’8″ junior who plays extremely hard and with toughness. He shoots decently, sets good picks, rebounds effectively when he’s on the floor, but the thing he does best is block shots. Playing just 17.7 mpg he posted 44 blocks in 36 games, a better per minute rate than even team leader Pardon. Skelly probably will remain as a bench guy at the 4 and 5 but I don’t rule out the possibility of his getting some starts at the 4. Collins loves his effort and toughness and having guys like that around lets a coach hold everyone else accountable for how much of each of those elements they’re bringing to the table.

Barrett Benson – Benson is a 6’10” sophomore with good size and rudimentary post skills who played well in a limited role as a freshman. He only saw 8 mpg but played within himself, hitting 59% of the shots he took, and I believe he’s a guy with big potential to emerge as a solid Big Ten center in time. For now, he gives NU another big body to use in case of foul trouble or particular matchups and I think he’ll show some gradual development as he goes along. I liked his game in AAU and think he’ll continue to progress into an effective post scorer and rebounder.

Jordan Ash – Ash is a 6’3″ junior who saw Brown pass him in the rotation to claim backup point guard minutes. He hasn’t yet proven that he’s up to a significant role as a perimeter bench player.
Aaron Falzon – Falzon returns after missing almost all of last season with an injury. He’s probably the favorite to assume Lumpkin’s starting role, as Falzon played almost 25 mpg as a freshman, averaging 8.4ppg and 3.4 rpg. He shot 35% from deep and is definitely a 3 point threat who will force defenses to extend all the way around the arc when he’s on the court. He needs to expand his offensive game to some degree in order to progress beyond the specialist role to a more broadly based offensive weapon. This is a big, under the radar “addition” to the Cats’ lineup, as many have probably forgotten how well he played two years ago. He could also play some as a wing backing up Law and likely will see minutes in that role as well.

PLAYERS ARRIVING

Anthony Gaines – Gaines is a 6’4″ wing from New York state who has athleticism and toughness to spare. He’s been seen as primarily a defender and rebounder in his HS career. He has good quickness, explosion as a leaper and strength. What he hasn’t shown thus far is a consistent jumper and that may limit him to a specialist role as a defender and energy guy, at least in the early going. Again, though, as with Law, Gaines is the kind of athlete Northwestern hasn’t typically had in its program, so on that basis alone he represents progress for Collins’ roster building. I expect Gaines can earn his way into some minutes as a freshman.

Rapolas Ivanauskas – Ivanauskas is a 6’9″ redshirt freshman who missed last year due to injury. He was seen as the top player in last year’s class, so his absence may render him, like Falzon, a bit forgotten by opposing fans. However, if healthy, he is expected to be a serious contributor to this team. He’s an athletic, tough, high motor guy who should be able to contribute as a rebounder and interior scorer right away. His jumper may need some time to fully develop but they think that eventually he’ll be a three level scoring threat. He will be in the mix to start at the 4 and at a minimum, I expect him to play a significant role as a frontcourt reserve.

THIS SEASON

Some will see the name “Northwestern” next to a #3 pick and think it insane, even with last season’s NCAA breakthrough having finally happened. I think if you took the school name away and just looked at the roster and what these guys have done and can do prospectively, it makes sense. This is a very experienced team, returning 4 starters and adding two guys who would have been key rotation players who missed the year with injury. Northwestern’s never been deeper, they’ve rarely been better off in the paint with multiple solid options inside, and in my lifetime they’ve never had a floor leader with the balls and the skill set that McIntosh provides.

I think such an experienced, deep team deserves to be picked this high. I think they’ll be a regular pick in most preseason top 25s and with good reason. This isn’t a perfect team by any means…they need to have several guys step it up in terms of perimeter shooting and they could also use some more consistency on the defensive end as a group. Still, the combination of talent and the depth the roster has should enable NU to make it two years running as a Tournament participant, and I think they’re going to win a lot of games in the Big Ten.