Men’s Basketball: Writers ruminate on an up-and-down start to Big Ten play


Daily file photo by Allison Albelda

Vic Law slams it home. The senior forward is playing a radically different role than he did a year ago.

Andrew Golden and Peter Warren

Men’s Basketball

After falling to 0-3 in the Big Ten following three losses to ranked teams in the conference, Northwestern (10-5, 1-3 Big Ten) rebounded with a 68-66 win over Illinois on Sunday. Heading into another treacherous stretch against two more formidable opponents — Iowa on Wednesday and No. 2 Michigan on Sunday — the Daily’s basketball writers convened to look at how the season has been going.

1. Is this Wildcats’ team better than the one that struggled in the Big Ten last season?

Andrew Golden: This year’s team has definitely shown that it is better than last year’s team. Despite the fact that the version a year ago had more experience and expectations heading into its season, this year’s group has exceeded its low expectations and turned in some impressive performances. While the Wildcats’ conference record so far isn’t impressive, their losses against Michigan and Indiana were as close as it gets.

One glaring similarity between both teams is that NU uses senior forward Vic Law as its primary form of offense, similar to how they used Bryant McIntosh as their primary option last season. However, if McIntosh was having an off-night, then the Cats looked lost and had no form of offense. This year’s team is a bit different. With Law struggling against Illinois on Sunday, NU showed its depth with four other players scoring in double figures. Graduate guard Ryan Taylor has gone 10-for-19 from behind the arc since the loss to Oklahoma and senior center Dererk Pardon has become a more consistent weapon offensively, scoring in double figures every game this season. The Cats don’t just rely on one player on any given night, which might help them down the road.

NU’s depth also benefits it on the defensive end as they have much more length than last year’s team and have lots of players who can play multiple positions. It remains to be seen how the team battles against the much-improved Big Ten the rest of the season.

Peter Warren: After 15 games, both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 teams had the same record, 10-5, and had a conference win against Illinois under their belt. There are a lot of similarities between each team’s first 15 games, especially the losses. Both teams were wiped off the floor at a Thanksgiving-week tournament game, fell to Oklahoma and lost a close conference game the first weekend of December in Indiana.

But when you look past those similarities, the differences between the two become clearer, and this year’s team comes out on top. Law, finally fully healthy, is playing at an All-Big Ten first team level. Pardon has been as efficient as usual and has even expanded his game out to the 3-point line. On the defensive side of the ball, this team has exceptional length and has shown an ability to be one of the best in the conference.

In defense of last year’s team, it never did reach its full potential due to injuries to McIntosh, Law and others. Plus, the true effect of playing at Allstate Arena will be one of the great mysteries of our time. But even with those qualifiers, the 2018-19 Cats are substantially better on defense, feature one of the best players in the conference and have better all-around depth.

2. What’s an adjustment Chris Collins can make to raise the team’s level of play?

AG: Dererk Pardon’s best scoring games are as follows: 24, 20, 19, 15, 15. Four of those five contests were against Top 25 opponents: Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and Oklahoma. Despite getting blown out by Michigan State, the other three games ended in one-possession games or went into overtime. If the Cats want more success moving forward, they should look to find Pardon in the post more often. He has proven that he can shoot at a high clip when he gets the opportunities—shooting 67.9 percent in those games. Earlier in the season, coach Chris Collins said that opposing teams should expect more play in the post from them, but besides Pardon and the scattered post looks from Law, we haven’t seen a lot of inside play from the Cats.

While NU may want perimeter shooting to be its identity offensively, it is simply forcing too many threes. The Cats are shooting 34 percent from the 3-point line as a team and while they have some shooters, only Taylor has really shown improvement from the beginning of the season. Without 3-pointers, the Cats are shooting 49.2 percent this season, proving that they have the size and strength to get to the rim. Instead of settling for jump shots, NU needs to attack the basket so that it can score in the paint or draw fouls. The Cats are statistically better when taking more free throws, with a record of 9-1 in games where they attempt 20 free throws or more.

If this team was going up against the Big Ten from last season, there is a good chance that it would’ve had the chance to win ten conference games. Unfortunately for the Cats, the problem is that there are four Big Ten teams that are ranked in the Top 25 and six others that received votes in this week’s AP poll. This is one of, if not, the most talented conferences in the country this year and NU will really have to battle in order to pull out wins the rest of the season.

PW: NU’s lineup of Turner, Taylor, Law, Pardon and sophomore guard Anthony Gaines has been the team’s best and most used lineup this season. Despite the lack of a traditional point guard, those five have proved to be able to generate good looks on offense and play some lockdown defense. But those five guys are playing a lot of minutes, especially during Big Ten play. Except for the blowout at Michigan State, Law and Pardon average 36 minutes a game in conference play, while Turner and Taylor log over 33.

While many of the best teams in the country play with relatively short rotations, those teams always have a few blowouts on their schedule where they can rest their best players. There are no easy games left on NU’s schedule. The Big Ten is so difficult that every team top-to-bottom can put up a good fight every night. There might not be a lot of chances to give those five a rest or other players a chance to gain experience. That could lead to some concerns about rest. Especially at the end of the season, when NU plays three games in a week span and then will play in the Big Ten Tournament the following week, fatigue will be a big issue if those five are not getting any rest.

The Cats have a chance to put back on their dancing shoes, and Collins should accordingly play his best players in any game NU has a chance of winning. How he rotates his lineups throughout the rest of the season could be the difference between ending with a bang or a whimper.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @andrewcgolden

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @thepeterwarren