Daily file photo by Katie Pach
Men’s Basketball: Will Northwestern win more games next season?
May 3, 2017
After a record-setting 24 wins and first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance last season, expectations are high for the Wildcats. Sports writers Garrett Jochnau and Max Schuman offer their takes on what 2017-18 has in store for NU.
Jochnau: Northwestern’s improvement will continue next season
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.
Schuman: Don’t expect more wins for Northwestern basketball in 2017-18
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.