Top 25 Countdown: #24 Northwestern

I can almost hear Greg Gumbel now. “Now Thursday/Saturday games out of the Midwest… and they will be playing the 10th seeded Wildcats of Northwestern…” I can’t hear anything else because my insides will have already exploded. Please bury my remains beneath the three point line. CBS tries to cut to their live feed of Welsh Ryan Arena. Nate Taphorn dabs and points at America. Gavin Skelly stands up and sprints around the floor twice, while loudly emanating a rash of incomprehensible syllables. Dererk stares quizzically ahead and whispers “Pardon me?”, believing wholeheartedly that he had just cleverly birthed an original pun at the perfect moment. And Bryant sits at the center of it all with his eyes closed. He keeps his eyes closed for a little longer, hoping that if he never opens them, he never has to stop dreaming. It couldn’t be real. It just couldn’t. Finally, he opens his eyes. He looks at the video board. It’s feed is split in half. Drew has been holding a three stache for the better part of thirty minutes. Alex, from across the pond, has been screaming for almost that entire time, although the speakers had given out a long time ago. They couldn’t handle that much noise. He looks up and winks. And then all of a sudden the live feed cuts out. Tries to return. And cuts out. Evanston erupts in flames.

The Northwestern Wildcats will make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history in 2017. But Mike, you say that every year, why should I even consider believing you now? Admittedly, over the past few years, there hasn’t genuinely been a team that was equipped to make it that far. My belief in our tournament hopes stretched much more into wishful thinking than they did into any kind of honest truth. But this year is different, I promise you.

Rotation

G Bryant McIntosh (Jr.)

G Scottie Lindsey (Jr.)

F Sanjay Lumpkin (R Sr.)

F Aaron Falzon (So.)

C Dererk Pardon (So.)

Bench

F Vic Law (R So.)

G Isiah Brown (Fr.)

F Gavin Skelly (Jr.)

F Nathan Taphorn (Sr.)

F/C Barret Benson (Fr.)

G Jordan Ash (So.)

Heading into his junior season, this team will go as far as Bryant McIntosh is able to take them. Which is not to say that the supporting cast is not capable. Rather, it’s more that Bryant is just really fucking good. 14th nationally in assist rate last year and 2nd in the Big Ten, Bryant is as close to an archetypal floor general as you can get. Not only that, but his assist rate jumped from 53rd his freshman year to that spot at 14 as season ago, while he simultaneously improved his turnover rate and played much heavier minutes. Frankly, he almost never came off the floor. And yet, where he improved most significantly last year and where his greatest upside resides is in his offensive assertiveness. There were a frustratingly large number of games last year in which Bryant and Tre Demps were the only two people capable of getting something even resembling a quality look, most often occurring near the end of the shot clock after several pick and rolls and half-hearted attempts at moving the ball around the perimeter had inevitably failed. And yet, there were also several games in which his unselfishness almost came at a detriment. A really crafty play-maker in the pick and roll, there are few things as enjoyable to watch as his careful probes into the lanes only to draw a defender and dish it off at the perfect moment. But knowing when to look for his shot and committing himself to that raises this team’s ceiling significantly. Last year against Columbia and Wisconsin at home, McIntosh ostensibly won each of those games single-handedly with his shot-making, scoring 32 and 28 points respectively; games that wielded his two highest shot attempt totals of the year.

Nevertheless, quite possibly the biggest question heading into the year is how exactly the Cats will replace Tre Demps. Not only was he the player on the team best at creating for himself and getting his own shot, but he was also an invaluable second ball handler who never turned the ball over, ranking 25th in the entire country in turnover rate. He played the most minutes of anyone in the conference, never leaving the floor much like his backcourt partner. This year, McIntosh will be ostensibly flanked by junior Scottie Lindsey, and it is Lindsey, who might actually hold the key to the entire season. Fitting the profile of a conventional 3 and D wing, Lindsey jumped to 41 % from behind the three point line last year, up from 35% his freshman year. However, with an inevitable increase in minutes and usage, it remains to be seen whether or not those numbers are sustainable.

The frontcourt will be comprised of redshirt senior Sanjay Lumpkin and sophomore Aaron Falzon, who, if they were capable of combining their talents into one body may very well be an All-American. Lumpkin is a quintessential glue guy, a player who might be the best individual on ball defender on the team, and whose willingness to crash the boards and become the face to a defensive identity purportedly committed to physicality renders him invaluable. However, there are few things harder to watch than a possession that ends in a Sanjay Lumpkin corner three. The ball seems to just close its eyes and pray that it finds the rim. Which is where Falzon steps in. A 35% shooter from deep last year, Falzon is already a skilled bomber and mover without the basketball. And if added strength and a year of experience can help him negotiate everything inside the line, he will almost certainly transform into our best and most complete offensive threat. I envision the best version of this offense being predicated around a spread pick and roll attack between McIntosh and sophomore center Dererk Pardon, allowing McIntosh to move downhill, Pardon and his enviable length to be around the rim, and Lindsey and Falzon to space the floor and stretch the defense. Supplementing the attack will be instant offense freshman guard Isiah Brown, energizer bunny junior forward Gavin Skelly, floor stretching (well maybe) senior Nate Taphorn,  and most importantly, the return of redshirt sophomore forward Vic Law. The most heralded Northwestern recruit in some time when he arrived on campus, Law showed flashes his freshman year of the player he was expected to be, an uber athletic and long forward, capable of being a terror on the defensive end. And while his offense was slow to come along, he shot 44% from beyond the arc in Big Ten Play. Yes you read that right, 44%. Good for 5th in the conference. Whether or not that kind of shooting ability is transferable after a year away from the court is another thing, but the talent is there, and his ceiling only keeps rising.

The Cats never help themselves with a perpetually barren non-conference schedule, but this year is a little bit different. With early season games against Butler, Texas, Notre Dame, and Dayton, Northwestern has something it often does not. Opportunities to bolster its resume outside of Big Ten conference games. This is the year. The momentum feels tangible. Like something is genuinely building. Undoubtedly a team whose footprint last year was characterized best by its unwillingness to turn the ball over but also its inability to turn the other team over needs to be incredibly precise and has little room for error. But everything is there to do something that has never been done before. When Evanston burns down in March, Chris Collins won’t have started the fire. But he will surely have brought it.

Namedrop Corner

Michael “Juice” Thomspon

juicepumpedvsosu3

January 29, 2011. The day was introduced to Northwestern basketball. The day I became a fan. That day the Cats welcomed #1 Ohio State to Evanston in a game that will forever be lamented as the Jared Sullinger game. That day the Cats lost 58-57, but I remember standing in my family room, screaming for a team I had never watched before. To me, it will always be the Juice Thompson game. Trailing the entire second half, he hit a three with 7:56 remaining to bring the Cats within 9, and assisted on a JerShon Cobb three just moments later to cut the lead to 5. He made another bomb a minute later to keep the lead at 4 and with 3:53 remaining, hit one more to put the Cats on top by a point. Welsh-Ryan was shaking. It felt special even while all I was able to have was a distant, vicarious experience through a television set. And even though the Cats lost on a regrettable Sullinger free throw in the final seconds, I received an ephemeral glimpse into how special an environment Welsh-Ryan could be. I was in. Thank you Juice.

 

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