Men’s Basketball Roundtable: Writers ruminate ahead of Northwestern’s Big Ten Tournament opener


Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer

Bryant McIntosh drives around Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan during Northwestern’s season finale. The junior guard will lead the Wildcats into the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.

Daily Sports Staff

Men’s Basketball

After a long season, Northwestern is set to kick off postseason play with its Big Ten Tournament opener Thursday night against Rutgers. If the Wildcats (21-10, 10-8 Big Ten) can top the Scarlet Knights (15-17, 3-15), they will keep their hopes of winning a conference championship alive with the shadow of a potential NCAA Tournament bid looming on Selection Sunday. The Daily’s men’s basketball writers convened on the eve of the tournament to discuss the team’s prospects in Washington, D.C.

1. NU has now gone 10 straight games without scoring 70 points. What can the team do to improve its offense in the postseason?

Ben Pope: Sophomore forward Vic Law must get into better shooting positions — and knock down his shots — to jumpstart NU’s offense. In Big Ten games where the Cats have scored 69 or more points, Law is shooting 44.6 percent; in conference games where they’ve scored 68 or fewer, he’s shooting 29.8 percent. When Law finally snapped his month-long offensive slump Wednesday against Michigan with a 7-for-10 performance, it was because he limited his low-efficiency long pull-up jumpers and got to the rim, where his athleticism is most beneficial. He will need to do more of that in the postseason.

Tim Balk: NU needs to get more buckets around the hoop. Forgive the cliche answer, but the Cats have been downright dreadful from deep over the past month. Since the start of February, NU is shooting just under 27 percent from 3, and it is no coincidence that the team only attempted 13 3-pointers in their home win over Michigan, their most efficient shooting effort during that period. Until the Cats warm up around the perimeter, they have to get it to sophomore center Dererk Pardon in the post and give junior guards Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh room to drive the paint.

Garrett Jochnau: Plain and simple, the Cats need to get out in transition. They’ve struggled to get easy fastbreak points as of late, and have instead been reliant on half-court sets that often end in forced floaters by McIntosh or defended 3s. Getting the players easy buckets — especially wings like Law and Lindsey whom NU relies on to relieve McIntosh’s scoring burden — should help the team find a rhythm.

Otherwise, if the opportunities aren’t there to run, coach Chris Collins should look to get Pardon looks in the paint. He seems to do so out of the gate each game, and with positive results. Getting Pardon going early and continuing to funnel the ball inside throughout would open opportunities along the perimeter and keep McIntosh from fading late.

Max Schuman: The Cats really need to knock down shots, particularly from 3. Guard play wins in March, and with McIntosh playing well down the stretch, NU ought to lean on a simple formula for getting buckets when it needs them: give McIntosh a ball screen, dot the perimeter with shooters, and let the point guard create.

Finding those shooters has been problematic of late, of course. NU has several guys who can theoretically connect from outside, and if just one or two of them can get going, things will be looking up for the Cats.

2. Which player will be most important to NU’s success in the Big Ten Tournament and beyond?

Balk: Trick question. The Cats do not have the depth or room for error to allow any of their key cogs to struggle going forward. McIntosh is the engine offensively, and the whole thing falls apart with him off the court. Lindsey is NU’s best two-way player, and fans saw how much the team struggles without him when he missed four games due to illness last month. And Pardon is just as important given the Cats’ lack of depth in the paint. Throw Law in for good measure too. He has been a game changer defensively. All four are not just important. They are essential.

Schuman: It’s got to be Law, based on how impactful he can be on both ends when he’s firing on all cylinders. He’s flashed the ability to do just about anything NU could need on offense, though not all at the same time, and a fresh and energetic Law can completely eliminate any opposing team’s top perimeter threat on the other end. The sophomore has noticeably worn down with big minutes over the course of the season and is mired in a horrendous shooting slump, but no player on the Cats’ roster can match his ceiling in terms of changing a game all by himself.

Pope: Given NU’s significant offensive struggles, the reason it still managed to win a school-record 10 Big Ten games was its defense, and the key to that stellar defense is Sanjay Lumpkin. The senior forward can play big and physical like a center or quick and athletic like a forward and can flip between the two roles instantaneously when necessary. His experience, leadership and awareness have made the Cats’ defense — and thus NU’s season — successful, and he can’t afford a slip-up now.

Jochnau: McIntosh. Law anchors the defense, and Lindsey was the best player when the Cats were in a groove. But at the end of the day, it’s McIntosh who pilots NU’s offense and who brings the veteran leadership the team needs to make a run. Recently named to the All-Big Ten second team, NU’s captain closed the season strong after a rocky start. As we saw in their win over Wisconsin sans Lindsey, the Cats can hit new peaks with McIntosh playing like a superstar.

3. How far will NU advance in the Big Ten Tournament?

Jochnau: A run to the semifinals sounds about right for the Cats, though I’d be equally unsurprised with a loss in the quarterfinals or a trip to the championship. As far as the opener, Rutgers had its chance to beat NU this season. That’s not going to happen again.

Against Maryland on Friday, the Cats certainly face tall odds, especially with Terrapins claiming a virtual home-court advantage. But the outcome of the team’s lone matchup, a 10-point loss in Evanston, offers hope.

The Cats played an ugly brand of basketball that game, shooting 39 percent from the field and 5-of-22 from deep. McIntosh went 3-of-13 and notched just 9 points, with freshman Isiah Brown’s 19 points serving as the sole silver lining. (His inefficient 6-of-15 clip calls into question how silver that lining even was.) Meanwhile, Maryland guard Melo Trimble exploded that game for 32 points — and yet, the Cats weren’t blown out. With NU playing at a much higher level to close the season, an upset is a legitimate possibility.

Pope: The Cats will advance to the quarterfinals but then fall to Maryland. After two subpar performances that still led to wins against Rutgers, NU should figure out the Scarlet Knights’ one-dimensional offense that relies entirely on offensive rebounds for a convincing win. In the next round, however, facing Maryland and perennial Cat-killer Trimble in the Terrapins’ backyard, NU will struggle to keep up.

Schuman: The quarterfinals feel like the most likely ending point for the Cats’ run. Throughout the season, NU has had stretches when it has soundly outplayed strong teams and looked like the kind of squad nobody would like to face in March. The Cats have also had more recent stretches when they couldn’t throw a ball from the Lakefill into Lake Michigan. As such, pretty much any outcome is on the table over the next few days, but NU’s average level of play over the course of the year would see them top Rutgers and lose to Maryland on Friday. That’s the safest bet for the Cats’ fortunes in the conference tournament.

Balk: Athletic Director Jim Phillips told The Daily he packed four suits to Washington, D.C. I predict he will need to wear at least three.