It’s hard to find someone who is more optimistic about Northwestern basketball than myself. Head coach Chris Collins is bringing in better recruits each year and pushing the program in the right direction, and I believe he is capable of eventually leading the Wildcats to their first ever NCAA Tournament.
But NU didn’t even get a NIT invite this year and (questionably) declined to participate in any other postseason tournaments. In Collins’ three years, the Wildcats have still yet to play a postseason game. So why, after winning 20 regular season games for the first time in program history and improving in Big Ten play, is Northwestern no closer to the NCAA Tournament than it was three years ago?
It all starts with the facade of a 20-12 record.
That 20-win mark looks awfully pretty, and it is a large improvement on Collins’ 15-17 and 14-19 seasons. But while a 20-win power conference team usually lies on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the Wildcats were instead on the NIT bubble. And they were able to reach this number because of a laughable non-conference schedule.
According to Ken Pomeroy, NU’s non-conference strength of schedule was ranked 345th in the nation – only six teams in all of Division I had an easier slate. Other than North Carolina, who NU lost to 80-69, the ‘Cats went 12-0 in non-conference play against opponents with a combined winning percentage of .379.
In the Big Ten, NU went 8-10, an improvement on Collins’ previous two 6-12 conference records. But again, NU only beat lesser opponents, going 7-2 against the bottom half of the Big Ten and just 1-8 against the top half.
So while the Wildcats won more, it was because of an easier schedule – not because they were necessarily an improved team. Sure, it’s important to beat the teams you should, but NU failed to beat good teams, a recipe for sitting on the couch in March.
Another reason for optimism is the largely unproven notion that the ‘Cats will actually be better off without seniors Tre Demps and Alex Olah.
Yes, Demps was often wildly inefficient and at times, caused the offense to stagnate. And yes, Olah is a miserable rebounder for a 7-footer and was ineffective for much of the season due to a foot injury. When freshman Dererk Pardon broke out against Nebraska, there seemed to be no reason to go back to Olah.
But down the stretch, it was the experienced veterans who led the way. Demps got his mojo back, becoming one of the Wildcats’ most dependable scorers – he averaged 20 points per game in the last 10 contests. Olah played through the pain of his foot injury, even putting the team on his back against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, dropping 20 points and 13 rebounds while doing things like this:
In fact, the two seniors were the only thing keeping NU in the game against Michigan - they scored 41 of NU’s 70 total points. On big stages like this, the ‘Cats will absolutely miss the experience and steadiness of Demps and Olah.
And who will actually replace these two? Demps played almost every single minute alongside guard Bryant McIntosh for a good reason – NU doesn’t really have anyone better at the two-guard position. Scottie Lindsey has shown flashes, but has never had much offensive responsibility. Jordan Ash is not known for offense and the Wildcats looked very shaky when he was on the floor this year.
Pardon is still very raw and has a lot to learn before he can hope to fill the shoes of Olah. After his breakout performance, he averaged just 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds the rest of the season, getting into foul trouble often and receiving limited minutes, even with a hobbled Olah.
As incoming recruits, guard Isiah Brown should add scoring, big man Barret Benson will help with size and forward Rapolas Ivanauskas will bring versatility. The return of Vic Law will give Collins a weapon he didn’t have this year. McIntosh is developing into one of the best point guards in the Big Ten and should get even better.
The Wildcats will hope for improvement from all their returners, as well as impact play from their recruits, but nothing is guaranteed. Without Demps and Olah, Northwestern will look different next year – and it remains to be seen if that will be for better or worse.
So while Northwestern basketball feels more exciting and it seems like the ‘Cats are getting better, the evidence is hard to actually find. Rather, we are left with more of the same – question marks and speculation.
I’d like to believe NU is improving. In Collins’ three years as head coach, he has transformed the slow, boring Bill Carmody Wildcats into a more athletic, exciting brand of basketball. There is more buzz and optimism around Welsh-Ryan Arena. It seems like they are headed in the right direction. But on the court, there is little evidence that Northwestern is actually getting closer to that so desired NCAA Tournament.