- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law, Aaron Falzon, Dererk Pardon
Key Losses: Sanjay Lumpkin
Key Newcomers: Anthony Gaines, Rapolas Ivanauskas
Postseason Projection: 5 - 8 seed
Northwestern finally broke through the seemingly impassable barrier of making the NCAA Tournament last season, ending their 78-year drought and scratching their names off the notorious “original NCAA Division 1 schools never to make the Tournament” list. Chris Collins has done a masterful job at the helm of the Wildcats, improving NU’s record in each of his first four seasons. With 85% of the team’s scoring production returning from last year, a repeat bid to the Dance appears to be in the cards, but the loss of Sanjay Lumpkin shouldn’t be understated. Lumpkin may have only scored 6.0pppg last season, but he was every bit the “glue guy” of the Cats, a steady scoring and rebounding option while assuming the role as the most versatile defender on the roster. However, the maturation of the returning Cats coupled with the comeback of Aaron Falzon should be enough to overcome the loss of Lumpkin and take NU back to the Field of 68.
I wrote about Northwestern extensively last season, and much of that write-up still applies to 2017-18 given the roster continuity. At a high level, NU’s success relies heavily on the shoulders of senior point guard Bryant McIntosh, a candidate for this year’s “How is that Guy Still in School” team. Despite a slight drop in efficiency and shooting percentage, McIntosh improved his scoring output and led the Big Ten in assists per game, vaulting him to a spot on the conference’s 2nd Team. The NU offense revolves around McIntosh – the ball is in his capable hands for nearly 20 ticks of the 30-second shot clock, and open looks come as a result of his playmaking off the pick-and-roll or kick out to shooters. McIntosh ranked 3rd in the Big Ten in minutes per game, a jump to 1st wouldn’t be shocking.
McIntosh’s perimeter mates include Scottie Lindsey, arguably the most improved player in the Big Ten last season, and Vic Law, an All-Defensive Team member with elite rebounding ability on the wing. Lindsey more than doubled his scoring average last season, pouring in 14.1ppg compared to his 6.4ppg back in 2015-16. Law was brilliant coming back from a season-ending injury two years ago, shooting 40% from deep on 148 attempts. McIntosh may be the catalyst to the offense, bit Lindsey and Law will be the biggest keys in improving Northwestern’s overall offensive efficiency; the tandem will be one of the best wing scoring combos in the conference.
Filling out the backcourt rotation will be sophomore Isiah Brown and 4-star freshman Anthony Gaines (Jordan Ash will see a little bit of run as well). To say Brown was trigger-happy last season is an understatement; the guard led the team in usage while he was on the floor but only finished shot attempts at a .354/.284/.768 clip. If Collins can reel in Brown’s decision-making, he can be a solid contributor this season. Gaines is a well-built 6’4” wing in the mold of Law; he has excellent strength and athleticism, and projects as a capable perimeter defender. The Cats’ 32nd nationally ranked defense was their biggest asset last season; the addition of Gaines should keep that asset strong in 2017-18.
The Wildcat frontcourt will get a large shot in the arm this season with the return of former 4-star recruit Aaron Falzon. Falzon drained the 2nd most threes by a freshman in school history in 2015-16, and looks to take on a bigger role in the offense this season past “spot-up stretch-four shooter”. Falzon doesn’t offer quite the defensive help as Lumpkin did, but his height will be a nice addition for an undersized Wildcat squad. Dererk Pardon returns to anchor the paint on defense. Despite standing only 6’8”, Pardon matched up well with bigger post players thanks to his ridiculous wingspan. The big man ranked 5th in the conference in block percentage and shot 61% from the field on the other end.
Gavin Skelly and Barret Benson also return to bolster the frontcourt. Skelly is somewhat of a cult hero in Evanston with his goofy style of play and floppy hair. Despite his appearance, Skelly is quite the athlete and actually turned in better per-minute block numbers than Pardon last season. His relentless hustle embodies the spirit of this Wildcat team. Benson played limited minutes last year but should be due for an uptick this season. He is the biggest player on the roster and projects as an excellent shot-blocker and lane disruptor. Redshirt freshman Rapolas Ivanauskas could also carve out a role up front. The Illinois native brings athleticism, rebounding, and inside scoring to the table – think Skelly with a slightly worse jumper.
Obligatory fun fact: the Northwestern roster includes two semi-celebs in Charlie Hall, son of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Tino Malnati, grandson of pizza genius Lou Malnati. They get a lot of camera time, but not so much floor time.
Obligatory non-fun fact: Northwestern will play their home games in the Allstate Arena out in Rosemont, IL this season, an out-of-the-way trek for just about every person living in Chicago. Ask DePaul how fun that was the past 27 years.
Northwestern should be every bit as good as last season in which they finished tied 5th in the Big Ten, earning an 8-seed in the Dance. The triumvirate of McIntosh, Lindsey, and Law represents one of the best perimeter trios in the league, and Chris Collins continues to prove his value as one of the best coaches in the country. The Cats will be in unknown territory this year as an odds-on favorite to earn an at-large bid in March. Let’s just hope the year playing out in Rosemont doesn’t crush their morale.