The Northwestern basketball season starts tomorrow and the Wildcats will be looking to start their season off building on top of last year. It was truly an up-and-down 2014-15 season for Northwestern, which included a 10- game losing streak, contained some very bright spots. Those bright spots were the contributions from Chris Collins’ recruited players.
Players like Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsay were all playing regular minutes and making some of Northwestern’s biggest plays, as freshman. The 2014-15 Northwestern season was the start of something new. A fairly new coach, a new system, and new players brought on a lot of new challenges. Seeing the young players react to the big pressure situations through out the season has to have Collins thinking his team is headed in the right direction.
Earlier I talked about how some of the older players at Big Ten Media Day seemed to be mirror images of their head coach. This is a good thing, especially when those players aren’t even ones Collins brought to the program. This shows is a trust and respect for their coach. Just talking to Tre Demps and Alex Olah it seemed they were on the same page with Collins and that there the ability to have an open conversation about anything with him. Collins, himself, talked about the private one-on-one meetings with Demps and Olah sharing his thoughts about the team and what he is expecting from his two captains.
Along with answering questions about what they did during the summer to prepare themselves for the upcoming season, Demps and Olah brought the conversation to how they were developing their skills as leaders. Olah even admitted his summer reading included books on leadership (how Northwestern of him). Olah said he was looking to learn how to communicate to his players tell them how they need to act and play in order to do what is best for the team. For Demps, it seems to be about maturity. Collins spoke about the clear change in Demps after his wedding. Collins said after his wedding Demps seems to be a happier person and how that has changed his work method and the way he goes about the game. Having two leaders who are looking at leadership in different, yet very similar ways – Olah the vocal leader and Demps the lead by example type -is the perfect combination for a team still developing.
While the roster hasn’t changed much, some key additions will drastically improve the Wildcats. After the season ended Virginia Tech’s Joey van Zegeren announced he will be transferring to Northwestern. Coming from the ACC, one of college basketball’s toughest conference, van Zegeren will provide Northwestern with great experience along with talent off the bench. As an athletic 6-foot-10 center van Zegeren brings verticality to Evanston. Olah is a great big man for Northwestern who scores in the post and protects the rim with excellent footwork. Olah has trouble running up the floor in transition and playing above the rim. While I was not in Spain during Northwestern’s overseas trip all the highlights of van Zegeren were either of him dunking, running in transition or swatting away opponents shots. At media day Collins went into detail about the tough battles between Olah and van Zegeren in practice and how that is going to help Olah come conference season.
Prior to this season some of the big men for Northwestern were undersized and Olah could do any move he wanted at anytime because he was 7 feet tall and physically bigger than them. Come game time, against people his own size, Olah wouldn’t have the same success. Now with someone who is not afraid to be physical and comes from a conference where you need to be physical will give Olah a chance to refine his post skills everyday. While Collins said he doesn’t see a time where he will play the two together, he is not afraid to ride with the hot hand.
Van Zeregen isn’t the only front court player who will contribute for Northwestern this upcoming season. Highly recruited freshman Aaron Falzon gives Northwestern the front court scoring they desperately needed last season. While Tre Demps can catch fire at any time and McIntosh proved to be a consistant scorer, they are only guards. When Alex Olah went to the bench Northwestern had no one down low who could score a bucket. This would often lead to opposing big men leaving their man to protect the rim. Falzon will be a player who demands the attention of his opponent. It is nice Falzon can score, but what is really beneficial for Northwestern is his spacing of the floor. Falzon can shoot the three ball and really challenge a defender to come out to a space he is not comfortable. Falzon not only causes a mismatch for himself, he opens up space in the paint for either Olah or van Zeregen. The spacing on the floor should make Northwestern’s offense more open and allow the ball to dictate where it should go.
One of the biggest stables for Northwestern last year was their zone defense. The zone broke their losing streak and made Northwestern a tough team to score on during a run at the end of the season. When asked Collins said he is not going to use it all the time like last season but will use it depending on match ups and the way the team is playing. One of the more interesting things to watch this year is the willingness of Collins to either switch into or out of the zone when players are not preforming well.
This 2015-16 Northwestern Wildcats team can be one of the better ones in recent history and should make strides in becoming one of the better Big Ten teams. While the goal of making the March Madness tournament is there, a more realistic goal is the NIT tournament and a run in the Big Ten conference tournament. With teams like Wisconsin and Michigan State coming off Final Four appearances it is hard to see Northwestern winning the Big Ten, but they will be putting themselves in the conversation.