Jochnau: Northwestern’s improvement will continue next season

Garrett Jochnau, Reporter

Before the start of Northwestern’s historic 2016-17 campaign, I confidently tabbed the Wildcats to improve as a team. Roster additions and player development signaled a clear indication that NU was poised to take the next step. But, anticipating a more difficult schedule, I was cautious in my optimism and suggested that 2015-16’s 20-win benchmark might not be attainable despite marked improvements.

Twenty-four wins later, it’s clear that I was wrong. I should have known better: Quality teams perform, and the 2016-17 Cats were just that.

This year, I’m not making the same mistake. All signs point to NU continuing its surge as a program in 2017-18, and I’d be remiss to rein in my outlook simply because the Cats might tackle a tougher slate.

In making my preseason prediction last year, I focused on two factors: development and additions. Once again, NU’s prospects in both facets are promising.

From an additions standpoint, the Cats are set to return sophomore forward Aaron Falzon, a 2015-16 starter who missed last season following knee surgery. Additionally, they’ll welcome freshman forward Rapolas Ivanauskas, who redshirted his first season in Evanston after suffering a preseason shoulder injury.

The duo adds a pair of much-needed scorers to NU’s roster. Despite securing its first NCAA Tournament bid last year, NU struggled with season-long depth issues. Injuries exacerbated the issue, but last year’s roster claimed only a handful of reliable scorers: Junior guards Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey shouldered much of the scoring burden with sophomores Vic Law and Dererk Pardon handling heavy workloads on occasion.

In his freshman campaign, Falzon averaged 8.4 points per game — the fourth-highest on the team — and emerged as a dynamic, if streaky, shooter. Ivanauskas is expected to also add length and a scoring flair to the Cats’ lineup, with one of the two likely to replace graduating senior Sanjay Lumpkin in the starting lineup.

Neither should be expected to bring Lumpkin’s signature grit, but as floor-spacers and scoring options, each promises to bolster NU’s offensive toolkit.

The Cats are also set to welcome Anthony Gaines to the roster. Provided the shooting guard plays as a freshman, NU can expect to add a healthy dose of athleticism to its lineup. He brings a well-rounded offensive game to Evanston and recently impressed at the Jordan Brand Classic regional game, which bodes well for a Cats’ backcourt that struggled to back up McIntosh.

Though none of the new pieces seem poised to singlehandedly transform an aspect of NU’s attack as Law did on the defensive end, the incoming additions fill necessary gaps. And with only Lumpkin and senior forward Nathan Taphorn — a 3-point threat who never eclipsed his role player status — set to graduate, the Cats have smaller shoes to fill than the previous year, when standouts Tre Demps and Alex Olah departed.

As far as development, there’s no way of predicting what kind of jumps individual returners can make. Nobody could have expected Lindsey to emerge as an All-Big Ten player, but he did and could well take the next step as a senior. McIntosh’s continued development and Pardon’s leap in his second season were somewhat anticipated, but both — especially the latter — have room to grow.

Guard Isiah Brown and center Barret Benson also showed flashes as freshmen, Brown as a scorer and Benson as a possible future star inside. Both received plentiful opportunities in their first year on campus and should improve with an added offseason under their belts.

And finally, the Cats can now operate without decades of pressure on their shoulders. NU’s regular season slip last year coincided with mounting pressure, and the team can now enjoy a full campaign without worrying about ending a historic postseason drought.

NU will be better in 2017-18, and if this past season offers any blueprint, the improvement will translate to wins.

Twitter: @garrettjochnau