Balk: Wildcats may not be better this year, but they will be more fun to watch


Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Vic Law rises up to finish a dunk. The sophomore should help invigorate the Wildcats’ offense this year after he redshirted last season.

Tim Balk, Managing Editor

Men’s Basketball

After achieving 20 regular-season wins for the first time in program history, it’s probably a longshot to expect Northwestern to improve much this winter. In fact, after losing their top scorer and top rebounder from last year, the Wildcats could be a team in transition.

Lack of size is the biggest concern for an NU team hoping to compete in the physical Big Ten. But the front court question marks suggest something else: The Cats’ style of play probably will change dramatically.

NU was intermittently efficient a year ago, but never exciting. The Cats hit their nadir in late January when they managed just 45 points on 21 percent shooting against Michigan State — nine fewer points than the football team dropped on the Spartans this fall.

It wasn’t a surprising result at the time, as NU was mired in a five-game losing streak and never seemed to put it together offensively in conference play, where it scored 66.4 points per game. That average was good for 11th in the Big Ten, and it reflected a plodding, awkward offense that was rarely much to watch.

This winter, the Cats will push it more, and the result may be more buckets. At worst, NU should keep things spicy.

Chris Collins, the Cats’ energetic 42-year-old coach, is no bore. His courtside histrionics bring some fire into Welsh-Ryan Arena on cold winter days, and he served as an assistant coach on some brilliant Duke teams.

But for the past three seasons, Collins has slowed the tempo when NU has gotten to conference play, looking to overcome a lack of Big Ten talent by mucking up games. It worked best his first year, when an overachieving Cats team pulled upsets against a ranked Illinois and a Wisconsin squad that later made the Final Four. Collins attempted to mitigate the limits of his personnel by going slow. This year, he may attempt to do the same by going fast.

The departure of center Alex Olah, NU’s rock in the middle for the last four seasons, leaves a vacuum down low. But it also presents intriguing possibilities in transition, as undersized-but-mobile sophomore big Dererk Pardon will step in.

“There are some things we can do with Dererk maybe that we couldn’t do with Alex,” Collins said at the team’s media day. “He’s unique. … He can cause a lot of problems for other teams’ big guys running the floor, getting on the boards, getting some energy points.”

There’s also the loss of Tre Demps, the Cats’ leading scorer a year ago. Demps was a volume scorer, but also a notorious ball stopper. NU will miss his big shots, but it won’t miss his tendency to dribble the air out of the ball.

Along with the departures comes the return of sophomore Vic Law, a hyper-athletic wing who redshirted last year due to injury, and the arrival of freshman guard Isiah Brown, who lit up scoreboards as a high schooler in Washington. Both, along with the maturation of Pardon and sophomore shooter Aaron Falzon, could provide exciting offensive opportunities.

“We’re a little bit more athletic,” Collins said. “There’s going to be times where we even might have to go to a smaller lineup.”

Questions abound when it comes to the upcoming season. Collins will have to get creative with personnel that may struggle to guard the paint or run efficient half court sets. But opportunities abound as well, and this team should run more than any Cats squad in years.

They might not beat Michigan State when they play them in December, but they should top the football team’s 54 points.

Tim Balk is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.