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Bryant McIntosh plays defense. The guard’s slow start has hurt Northwestern but provides the team with room for improvement.

Men’s Basketball: Will Northwestern make the NCAA Tournament?

January 10, 2017

Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament. Now sitting at 13-4 on the season, the Wildcats seem poised to contend for a spot. Sports writers Garrett Jochnau and Tim Balk debate the team’s tournament prospects.

Jochnau: Northwestern bound to fall short of NCAA Tournament

Northwestern’s young season has seen a number of successes.

Non-conference wins over Texas, Dayton and Wake Forest gave the Wildcats’ resume some early strength, while close losses to Butler and Notre Dame showed the team’s ability to hang with tournament-bound opponents.

However, all momentum from the early schedule was lost when NU dropped back-to-back contests against Michigan State and Minnesota in late December and early January. The win over Nebraska was essential in preserving any tournament-related hope, but the reality is that the Cats are facing incredibly steep odds. Unless the team elevates its play to previously unseen levels, it will fall short yet again.

The Big Ten schedule is relatively friendly, but has its fair share of challenges. And with a number of the looming matchups — namely two against both No. 17 Purdue and an underperforming Indiana team, as well as one with No. 18 Wisconsin — looking like sure losses, NU has minimal room for error against the conference’s middle-tier teams. With a shaky track record thus far, that should worry coach Chris Collins.

The team could get a big boost if junior guard Bryant McIntosh snaps out of the slump that’s plagued him since the season’s start, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely. Injuries to sophomore forward Aaron Falzon and freshman forward Rapolas Ivanauskas have left the frontcourt thin, and NU has struggled to find consistent guard play off the bench.

For a team with a number of glaring flaws, the Cats require near perfection to reach the tournament. And while this season represents progress on the team’s part — the return of sophomore forward Vic Law and the emergence of junior guard Scottie Lindsey put NU in a good place to compete next year — it’s looking as though 2016-17 will be little more than a stepping stone in NU’s quest to secure a tournament bid.

Garrett Jochnau is a Medill sophomore. 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.

Balk: This looks like the year for Northwestern

Before the season, I was downright bearish on Northwestern’s prospects. The last time we debated here in the sports pages, I called for the Wildcats to take a step back from their 20-win success of 2015-16. I didn’t think NU could overcome its lack of size or find a way to stop Big Ten opponents.

A couple months later, I’m flipping my tune. These Cats ain’t bad.

Not only did they impress with consistent efforts in non-conference play, they’ve shown some serious guts since Big Ten play opened. The Cats notched a blowout win at Penn State a couple days after Christmas and, more impressively, pushed past Nebraska on the road Sunday.

The biggest reason for NU’s success is junior guard Scottie Lindsey, a role player last year who has emerged as a consistent and potent offensive option. Lindsey paces the Cats with 15.6 points per game and combines with high-jumping, hot-shooting sophomore forward Vic Law (who missed last season due to injury) and mainstay junior guard Bryant McIntosh to form a trio of tough scorers.

NU now has Big Ten-level offensive firepower, and it has shown. Plus, McIntosh still hasn’t found a rhythm this year — the Cats’ star point guard is shooting 36 percent from the field and 26 percent from deep.

Of course, none of that changes the fact that they remain mightily undersized. But NU has managed to overcome its deficiency in the paint with solid perimeter defense and team rebounding. Sophomore center Dererk Pardon has also played well.

The smart money right now has to be on NU making the NCAA Tournament. The Cats sit at 13-4 and 2-2 in conference with a favorable schedule remaining. Outside of Purdue and Wisconsin, the Big Ten is in an enfeebled state this year. If the Cats continue to rack up wins, and steal just one game against one of those two teams, they’ll dance in March.

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.