Men’s Basketball: Northwestern’s offense heads into 2019-20 season with more questions than answers


Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

A.J. Turner scans the floor. Back in his natural wing position, the senior forward will look to be an offensive threat for the Cats.

Peter Warren, Print Managing Editor

Last year, Northwestern’s offense was tough to watch. Leading scorer Vic Law got hurt in January and never fully recovered. Low-post threat Dererk Pardon’s production dropped as opposing teams doubled-teamed him relentlessly. Pure shooter Ryan Taylor was not the marksman he was labeled as when he came in as a graduate transfer.

Yet, those three players led the team in scoring, and now all three are gone, leaving a large hole to fill on offense.

“Last year, we relied heavily on Vic and Dererk, for good reason, they’re great players,” senior forward A.J. Turner said. “This year, it’s more everyone spreading the ball around and not just looking into the post or swinging it out on the perimeter for Vic. We have a lot of versatile guys.”

Coach Chris Collins has plenty of potential options to fill the void. Throughout training camp, Collins has said there are 10 guys he believes will fill in the rotation — with two point guards, four wings and four bigs.

That group of personnel has led Collins to make an adjustment to the Wildcats’ offensive tendencies.

“We are trying to play this year with a little more pace,” Collins said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to shoot faster if it’s not there, but we are trying to play a little bit faster than we have in the past and be committed to that.”

Turner is the team’s leading returning scorer at 8.9 points per game. Without a true ball-handler, Turner played most of last season as the de facto point guard, which Collins said affected his shooting — his field goal percentage dropped 35 percentage points from his final season at Boston College.

This year, Turner will return to his natural position on the wing. Turner said playing out of his typical position helped expand his game. He added he has spent a lot of time working on his one-on-one moves and creating off-the-dribble.

“We have a bunch of guys who can be playmakers,” Turner said. “We are looking for the team to show versatility as a whole, myself included.”

With Turner playing off ball, point guards Ryan Greer, a sophomore, and Boo Buie, a freshman, will be the two lead ball handlers. Both are natural point guards but are different in their styles. Greer is an old-school point, while Buie is a dynamic playmaker.

Collins said he has told the two to be themselves and not try to play like the other. Buie said he wants to become a better floor general.

“I’m gonna still look to score, but I’m going to try to get more guys involved,” Buie said. “Making it all more fluid.”

According to Collins, there’s a chance a lineup featuring both Greer and Buie becomes part of the rotation. He also said graduate guard Pat Spencer, who has impressed with his athletic ability and competitiveness, could see some time running the offense.

Sophomore forward Miller Kopp was the team’s leading scorer on its August trip to Europe. Kopp scored 86 points over four games while shooting 50 percent from the field. And while the competition in Italy and France wasn’t great, it showcased the Texas native’s ability to put the ball in the basket and Collins’ belief in Kopp’s scoring ability.

Fellow sophomore forward Pete Nance is also expected to become a bigger part of the offense after a disappointing freshman campaign. Nance can play in both the post and around the perimeter.

Junior guard Anthony Gaines should see a jump in usage after playing in a minor offensive role the past two years. Used mostly as a slasher and rim-attacker since arriving on campus, Gaines can improve his offensive output by developing and illustrating a consistent ability to hit a jumper.

“Being able to be a competent 3-point shooter is something that’s the next step for him,” Collins said, “because now, all of a sudden if you have to guard him out there, his driving ability and slashing is magnified.”

Gaines isn’t the only one who needs to be a better shooter for the offense to improve. NU was one of the worst shooting teams in Division I last season, finishing No. 315 in 3-point percentage and No. 337 in field goal percentage. The Cats need to be better inside and outside the arc.

Two of college basketball’s top statistical analysts — Ken Pomeroy and Bart Torvik — don’t have high hopes for NU. Before the season started, Pomroy projected the Cats to be ranked No. 151 in adjusted offense, and Tovik had NU at No. 230 in his adjusted offensive efficiency statistic.

Expectations are low for NU — almost all preseason predictions place them in last or second-to-last in the Big Ten. The Cats are young, unproven and hungry. If they want to win games, it starts and ends on the offensive side of the court.

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