Men’s Basketball: Big Ten players and coaches weigh in on Northwestern


Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell raises up for a jumpshot over Northwestern senior guard Tre Demps. Ferrell said when playing the Wildcats, Indiana focuses on stopping Demps and fellow senior, center Alex Olah.

Bobby Pillote, Gameday Editor

Men’s Basketball

Northwestern didn’t get the results it wanted on the court last season, finishing 15-17 overall and 6-12 in the Big Ten, but the team began to turn some heads within the conference in the second season of coach Chris Collins’ tenure.

In a year that saw then-juniors, guard Tre Demps and center Alex Olah, emerge as the leaders of the team, the Wildcats endured a stretch of 10-straight losses before orchestrating a late-season turnaround thanks to the deployment of a 2-3 zone defense. Freshmen, such as guard Bryant McIntosh, stepped up around Demps and Olah and provided hope for the future.

Tim Miles, the coach at Nebraska who, similarly to Collins, is trying to build up a perennial contender, had high praise for how Collins is constructing the NU program going into his third year.

“Who’s coming down (in the conference standings)? Nobody,” Miles said at Big Ten Media Day in October. “So how do you build up when nobody is moving anywhere? And Chris has done a terrific job recruiting. … He’s right: It’s not if, but when, they’re going to make the NCAA tournament.”

Collins has made splashes in recruiting by landing key contributors like McIntosh and big names like former four-star recruits Vic Law and Aaron Falzon. While the latter two are expected to contribute significantly this season, it’s McIntosh who will continue to draw the most attention from opponents as the team’s starting point guard.

Michigan State forward Matt Costello included McIntosh with Demps and Olah as part of NU’s “big three” and admired the Cats’ tenacity in an overtime game against the Spartans last season.

“They’ve got Olah, they’ve got Demps, they’ve got that little white guard (McIntosh) who was killing it last year,” Costello said. “They have that talent now, and putting that grit with that talent, it’s a tough team to beat. We’ve got to be ready every time we play them.”

Many players lauded NU for its resiliency, with Michigan guard Caris LeVert, who was injured in the Wolverines’ game against the Cats, calling the team “relentless” and Ohio State forward Marc Loving describing NU as “frustrating” and “playing very hard.” The Cats lost each of those games against the Wolverines and Buckeyes by two points, falling to Michigan on a McIntosh floater that refused to roll in and coming up short in a late rally against Ohio State.

Beyond toughness, players around the conference also agreed the 2-3 zone was a defining characteristic of NU last season.

“I think their 2-3 zone had us sideways,” Iowa guard Mike Gesell said. “They were pushing us out to half court. And when you’re going against a 2-3, you want to take it inside, and I think we were taking too many jumpers.”

The Cats beat the Hawkeyes in overtime in the teams’ first meeting of the season before losing the rematch, in part because of how Iowa adjusted to the zone defense, Gesell said. Indiana experienced similar results, losing its first game to NU in the regular season only to figure out how to best the zone and the Cats in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament.

And regardless of the result or date of the game, all players agreed Demps and Olah were far and away the primary threats for NU last season.

“Defensively we had to shut down their key players, Demps and Olah,” Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell said. “That’s a big dude (Olah) right there, let me tell you. We felt like we had to shut those two key guys down because … they were going to go to them if they needed a bucket.”

Costello said Olah would make “a good NBA big” and praised his soft touch around the rim, and Maryland forward Jake Layman called Demps a top player in the country who’s poised for a big senior season.

All around the Big Ten, there’s a feeling that NU is ready to jump up in the conference pecking order.

“They have a really good team coming back,” LeVert said. “They had some young guys last year who got in the lineup and got a lot better. They were probably getting used to the system as well, so I definitely think they’ll be a lot better this year.”

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