Simply reaching the NCAA Tournament is no longer the ultimate goal for Northwestern. The team’s trip to the Round of 32 was a stop on the never-been-done-before tour — a huge, perception-changing stop, but a stop nonetheless. “Just a step in the process to ultimately become a championship-level program,” coach Chris Collins says.
Northwestern has the roster to reach higher. Many had targeted this season, not last, for the Wildcats’ NCAA breakthrough. Led by one of the nation’s top troikas in Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law, alongside rapidly improving center Dererk Pardon and others, Northwestern is a preseason top-25 team that should contend in the Big Ten. The Wildcats also face unprecedented expectations and the hassle of playing away from Welsh-Ryan Arena, which is being renovated.
“When a lot of guys return, you can’t just assume you’re going to be good, or assume you’re going to have that same chemistry,” Collins says. “It’s a new journey, a new pursuit, a new hunger.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Chris Collins
2016-17 RECORD (BIG TEN): 24–12 (10–8)
2016-17 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Gonzaga 79–73 in the second round
F Sanjay Lumpkin (6.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
F Nathan Taphorn (4.5 ppg, 1.5 rpg)
Pardon should be a consistent double-double threat after posting the Big Ten’s second-highest field goal percentage (.611) last season. Collins wants to go bigger and use different frontcourt combinations, including Pardon and 6'10" Barret Benson together. If Pardon develops his midrange jumper, it will allow lengthy wings to pinch in and create more interior scoring.
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The frontcourt will have a different look as Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas both return from injury. Falzon, who made 63 3-pointers as a freshman, is the perimeter shooting threat Northwestern lacked for stretches last season. Ivanauskas, in line for playing time as a freshman before a shoulder injury, provides size and energy. Along with forward Gavin Skelly, Ivanauskas will do the dirty work previously handled by Sanjay Lumpkin.
Law is Northwestern’s best athlete and most versatile player. Already an All-Big Ten defender, Law should look to attack the basket more. He can hit open 3-pointers but struggled last year when Lindsey missed time and opponents targeted him.
After three exceptional seasons, McIntosh has earned Collins’ trust to run the team. He added muscle to handle the rigors of being a marked man and should be able to create his own shot when needed. “He’s trying to get into the rim even a little bit more and make others help, where he can either score or find other guys, where you don’t always need a ball screen,” Collins says.
Isiah Brown, Jordan Ash and incoming freshman Anthony Gaines will spell McIntosh, who has averaged 34.4 minutes in his career. Brown, a volume scorer in high school who, at times, struggled with his decision making in 2016-17, should benefit from a season under his belt.
Lindsey could be Northwestern’s top scoring option after a breakthrough season. His next step is better ball handling.
Collins doesn’t downplay his roster. “It’s the most talented team we’ve ever had,” he says, before adding, “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best team.” Northwestern must maintain the chemistry, defensive stinginess and drive it used to finally break the NCAA Tournament barrier.
The Wildcats also must handle playing home games at gloomy Allstate Arena, 14 miles from campus. Collins hopes the team’s experience will help it handle the temporary relocation, as well as the high hopes. “We’re not going to run from expectations,” Collins says. “It’s going to be even more important for our guys to be hungrier and more determined, because we’re going to be getting a lot of teams’ best shots.”