B1G Basketball Preview: Northwestern

Story posted November 12, 2015 in Sports, CommRadio by Jeff Jezewski

After a 2014-2015 season in which the Northwestern Wildcats finished 15-17, Chris Collins will enter his third season in charge of a program that has never received an NCAA tournament bid. With two 10th place Big Ten finishes in two seasons, Collins and his team will face a new set of challenges in their quest to Big Ten relevancy.

Key Returning Players

The Wildcats have experience on their side this season as they return eight players from last season’s squad. With senior guard Tre Demps, senior big man Alex Olah, talented sophomore Bryant McIntosh and junior Sanjay Lumpkin returning, Northwestern brings back four players who started 25 or more games last season. Demps, Olah and McIntosh also led the team in scoring a year ago, each averaging more than 11 points per game.

Sophomores Scottie Lindsay and Gavin Skelly return for the Wildcats, as well as junior Nathan Taphorn. The eighth as final returning player, Vic Law, was expected to play an integral role in year number two, but is sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury. Law averaged seven points per game and played in 32 contests during his freshman campaign.

Key Losses

While it’s a very real possibility the worst loss for this upcoming season is the aforementioned loss of sophomore guard Vic Law, Northwestern has a few more losses to overcome. Gone from last year’s squad is former starter JerShon Cobb. While Cobb’s usage decreased over the last year of his career, he still started 16 games and averaged more than six points per game while shooting 36.4 percent from deep.

Other players gone from the 2014-15 squad include Dave Sobolewski, Johnnie Vassar, and Jeremiah Kreisberg. Sobolewski started two games for the ‘Cats and shot 35.6 percent from three-point range.

Incoming

Now becoming more important than ever before in the NCAA is the addition of freshman talent to a team. Northwestern brings in the 63rd-ranked recruiting class in the nation, led by four-star power forward Aaron Falzon. Three-star recruits Jordan Ash and Dererk Pardon and walk-on Charlie Hall will also join the returning group of Wildcats.

Along with the incoming freshman, Collins added graduate transfer Joey van Zegeren from Virginia Tech to his squad. The 6-foot-10 Netherlands native played 13 games and made three starts in ’14-’15 for the Hokies.

Offensive/Defensive Notes

Lacking a giant offensive talent, the Wildcats struggled offensively last season, finishing 279th in the nation with just 63.5 points per game. A lack of inside help also pained Northwestern as they finished 243rd in the nation in rebounds per game with 32.9. The return of Olah and addition of van Zegeren should help on that front. Northwestern also finished in a tie for 167th in the country with a 43.6 field goal percentage.

While it’s apparent the Wildcats weren’t exactly a stellar offensive unit, they did manage to fare better on the defensive side of the ball. Still not exactly something to write home about, Northwestern finished 112th in the country in points allowed. The ‘Cats allowed 64.6 points per game, simultaneously allowing teams to shoot 41.6 percent from the floor and 37.7 percent from downtown. 

Non-Conference Schedule

Northwestern’s non-conference schedule isn’t exactly littered with extremely tough games, but the tough ones can’t get much tougher. The Wildcats start the 2015 season with a home game against UMass Lowell before taking on Fairfield and Columbia in the Campus Site Games of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.

Next up for the Wildcats comes the semifinals of the Classic, and that’s where the trouble begins for coach Collins’ squad. On Nov. 23, Northwestern goes to battle with preseason No. 1 North Carolina. Pending the outcome of that contest, Northwestern will take on either Kansas State or Missouri on Nov. 24 in Kansas City to finish out the tournament.

After the tournament, the schedule lightens up for the Wildcats, but road games against Virginia Tech (Dec. 1) and DePaul (Dec. 19) still loom large in the non-conference. Northwestern will need to take care of Sacred Heart and Loyola (Md.) at home before heading into the conference slate.

Conference Schedule

Arguably the toughest conference top to bottom in college basketball, the Big Ten never makes things easy for teams. Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, who are trying to improve on their 10th place finish a year ago, they have to face Maryland and Ohio State twice. Adding to that, they travel to Bloomington, Indiana, Ann Arbor, Michigan and West Lafayette, Indiana.

Luckily for the Wildcats, they host Michigan State and Wisconsin in conference play, but neither are expected to be easy games regardless. Like Collins’ first two years in the conference, it will be a tough task for the Wildcats to make a huge push in the conference.

Predictions

Before Vic Law’s injury, this was a team that looked to have the potential to earn its first NCAA bid in school history. However, after that blow it looks like they may have to wait another year. While he hasn’t had the success to back it up yet, it seems there is no doubting Chris Collins ability as a basketball coach and a recruiter. Once Collins gets the talent needed to compete in the Big Ten, I firmly believe he is the man to lead Northwestern to the Promised Land, in their case, an NCAA tourney bid. That being said, this year will not be that year. Look for the Wildcats to continue improving on their record and their place in the Big Ten, but to fall short, yet again, of the NCAA tournament.

Jeff Jezewski is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him email jeffjez13@gmail.com or follow him on twitter @JeffJezewski13