Men’s Basketball: After uneven non-conference season, Northwestern primed to test conference waters

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

As Northwestern’s non-conference schedule draws to a close and Big Ten play begins, the Wildcats will find themselves in a fight to not be the worst team in the conference when they travel to Rutgers on Tuesday.

It isn’t a happy position to be in, but it’s also not far from expectations for a young and still sometimes struggling NU squad. At 9-4 the Cats are technically tied for eighth in the Big Ten standings, but don’t expect to see them any higher than the ninth seed in the Big Ten Tournament at season’s end.

That’s because NU could have been 11-2 or even 12-1 against what was a relatively weak slate of opponents to start the season. The Cats started 5-0, including a one-point overtime squeaker at home over Elon, ranked 226th nationally according to kenpom.com.

Northern Iowa, NU’s first serious competition of the season, soundly defeated the Cats by 19 points. NU went on to drop winnable contests against Georgia Tech and Butler, mostly by way of poor shooting, and suffered a disappointing loss to Central Michigan by double-digits, again on the Cats’ home court.

Coach Chris Collins lacks a signature win to hang his hat on. The best team NU has defeated this season, Western Michigan, ranks just 147th according to kenpom.com. Yet it isn’t all bad news for the second-year coach, as many of the freshmen he recruited this year have already made an impact.

At the front of the pack is freshman starting point guard Bryant McIntosh, who leads the team in minutes per game with 32.6, boasts an impressive 11.3 points per game (second on the team) and also averages five assists per contest.

High-profile freshman forward Vic Law has also impressed, but not to the same degree. Law averages 7.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, but still needs to improve his ball handling and shooting to establish himself as the top recruit in Collins’ inaugural class.

The pleasant surprises thus far have been sophomore forwards Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn, each of whom seems to have taken a quantum leap forward from a year ago. Lumpkin is now a key starter who shoots 61 percent from the floor and averages 7.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.

Taphorn, meanwhile, was thought to be lost in the transition to Collins’ offensive scheme. Instead he’s established himself as a scoring threat off the bench, averaging half a point a minute when he’s on the floor and shooting a cool 47 percent from beyond the arc.

Juniors center Alex Olah and guard Tre Demps have been about as good as advertised, which says something different about each player. Olah is continuing his development into one of the better big men in the Big Ten, pulling down 7.3 boards per game while also scoring 11 points per contest. More importantly he’s improved his shot, making 70 percent of his free throws and 50 percent of his threes.

Demps, the team’s leading scorer with 11.5 points per game, has earned respect with his improved driving ability, but has also gotten off to a horrid shooting start by making just 27 percent from beyond the arc and 37 percent overall. He also still dribbles far too much for a starter logging 31 minutes a game.

Absent from the picture is senior guard JerShon Cobb, who played through lingering injury issues early in the season and has been out indefinitely since Dec. 14. The veteran was expected to be a valuable scoring threat but was connecting on a scant 29 percent of shots before being pulled from the lineup.

The bright side is Cobb’s continued absence means more playing time for NU’s bumper crop of talented but still developing freshmen. Guard Scottie Lindsey and forward Gavin Skelly have seen their minutes rise and have become bigger bench contributors since Cobb’s injury.

With or without Cobb, this roster is still destined for a season similar to last year’s 14-19 finish, but that’s not for a lack of improvement. The Cats of last season ground the pace of the game to a halt, played suffocating defense and hoped for a good night from Demps or Drew Crawford. This year, the team is relying much more on its own strategy, athleticism and scoring ability.

Collins even looks more comfortable as a head coach, having settled into a preferred starting lineup and rotation more quickly this year than he did last year.
The results won’t always be pretty, but NU is an improved team this season, which should hold up against the rigor of the Cats’ conference slate.

Email: [email protected]northwestern.edu
Twitter: @BobbyPillote