The Daily Northwestern

Schuman: Don’t expect more wins for Northwestern basketball in 2017-18

Max Schuman, Digital Managing Editor

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Predicting the fortunes of a college sports team before a new season is as easy as counting the number of returning players from last year’s roster, right?

That’s the popular view; at least, one that has Northwestern fans dreaming of something even bigger than last season’s historic run. The Wildcats eventually fell at the hands of NCAA Tournament finalist Gonzaga, but not before racking up a school-record 24 wins and earning a first-ever ticket to The Dance. With NU’s four best players returning, along with a host of role players from last season’s trailblazing squad, next season’s Cats should easily clear the bar set last year — right?

Count this writer as skeptical that things are so simple. Though it might not be obvious in the afterglow of NU’s incredibly successful season, there are plenty of reasons to doubt the Cats will match that lofty win total.

Some of those reasons have little to do with NU’s players. Your record is a function of how well you play, of course, but also who you play. And on the second point, the Cats will undoubtedly face a tougher task than they did last season.

NU’s rise coincided with a down season for the Big Ten, and while Wisconsin and Maryland could take steps back, teams like Michigan State and Minnesota return with tremendous amounts of talent after being roughly on par with the Cats last year. Purdue will likely remain near the conference summit, and Indiana should show more life under new coach Archie Miller. Even if NU improves, a fortified Big Ten could leave the team short of last season’s record.

And whether the Cats will improve from last season is not clear-cut. Yes, Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon are all back after proving to be a winning nucleus. But senior forwards Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn are gone, and the defensive versatility and shooting value, respectively, they offered could be a bigger blow than their stat lines suggest.

Players like sophomore forward Aaron Falzon and freshman forward Rapolas Ivanauskas might not fit those roles in the same way next year, and NU could suffer for it. It seems crazy to say that the departure of a duo averaging about 10 points per game combined could make such an impact, but even the losses of the smallest pieces could upset the delicate balance of a basketball team.

Perhaps improvement from the Cats’ core four can cover up the loss of those two reliable role players. Surely Law, whose raw talent may be unmatched on NU’s roster, has clear upside after a season of hot and cold offensive play.

But the Cats’ other stars may have played near their potentials a year ago. Pardon was a revelation anchoring the paint, McIntosh found his groove running the offense down the stretch and Lindsey provided a consistent scoring punch in the backcourt. Each player could emerge from the offseason slightly more efficient, but none have glaring flaws that, if fixed, would key a major improvement for the team.

NU was very good last season, inarguably the best team the school has ever seen. But that squad’s chemistry and magic might be gone. Best-ever seasons are hard to come by; consecutive ones even more so. Even coach Chris Collins said improvement can’t be assumed simply from the names returning.

“You’ve got to be real careful where you just think because a lot of guys are back, it’s going to be the same,” Collins said. “We’ll be a different team next year. Hopefully better. But I can’t say that right now.”

Under Collins, NU’s progression has been steady, both in the win column and in the team’s quality of play. At some point, however, the Cats will hit a ceiling of how good this group can be. Don’t be surprised if they’ve done so already.

Twitter: @maxschuman28