Northwestern’s Hunt for March Reaches Conference Play

Northwestern basketball enters Big Ten conference play this week after finishing the non-conference schedule 12-1, the program’s best 13 game start in school history. Despite a few major injuries and some close calls to bad teams, the Wildcats seem to be primed for their first NCAA tournament bid in the program’s history.

Chris Collins Their offense has led the way, currently sitting at 5th in the conference in scoring, and their 73.7 points per game average through 13 games is their highest scoring average since the 2005-06 season. A big part of their bump in scoring is their ball movement; Northwestern is number one in Big Ten in assist to turnover ratio.

As conference play kicks off today against Nebraska, we look back at Northwestern’s play so far this season.

The High

 Finishing the non-conference schedule at 12-1 is a high in itself, especially for a team that continues to make strides each year of Chris Collins’ tenure as head coach, but the highest high might have actually come in the team’s lone loss to North Carolina. Most of the teams on their schedule were ones they were supposed to beat. While wins over Columbia and Virginia tech may look better with a ‘W’ at the end, the way they played against the Tar Heels, a former annual foe of Collins from his days with Duke, may be the best argument for the team they are capable of being.

North Carolina came into the season as the top seed in the nation, but dropped after a couple of early season losses. That said, North Carolina is still a force in college basketball, and they were barely able to eek this one out 80-69. This was the closest we got to seeing Northwestern face Big Ten-quality competition and they kept up nearly every step of the way.

 The Low

 If the season’s high was a loss, then of course the season low has to be from a win. The low point of the non-conference schedule was their 78-70 victory over DePaul in overtime. Northwestern looked awful for most of this game against the lowly Blue Devils, a team they should have had no problem with.

This game stood out because it focused on a major weakness in this team’s game. Northwestern depends so much on their outside shooting that if they hit a game like this where they go cold through the entire first half, they are going to dig themselves into some holes that they may not be able to recover from. Northwestern shot 22% from behind the arc, a number that was even inflated a bit by two big Falzon triples that came in overtime. Northwestern needs to find other ways to score in games like this when shots just aren’t going in.

 The Olah Injury

 One reason we may see them continue to depend on the outside shot is their most recent injury to senior center Alex Olah. Olah is out indefinitely, but early reports have him missing 4-5 games.

The loss of Olah is a big one for a number of reasons. Not only is he one of the team leaders, but he is also their only true low post scorer. Olah ranks in the top 10 in the Big Ten in rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage. His ability to pass and hit the outside shot on the pick and roll makes him a unique talent for his size that makes him irreplaceable.

To help, the team lifted Dererk Pardon’s red shirt and Pardon responded with a nice outing in their win over Loyola this past weekend. With Olah out, the other bigs need to contribute by committee. Pardon, Gavin Skelly and Joey Van Zegeren need to find a way to make up for at least some of Olah’s impact on games. Van Zegeren will likely see most of the starts, but none of them are really a threat to score. Northwestern will need to find ways to get them involved in the offense so that defenses are forced to respect the paint and take the focus off of the perimeter as much as possible.

McIntosh emerges

The biggest factor in Northwestern’s early season success sits on the shoulders of sophomore guard Bryant McIntosh. McIntosh is in the midst of a breakout season, where he has already reached his career high in points twice – 32 points against Columbia in November and then topped that with 33 in the non-conference finale against Loyola.

McIntosh is averaging 16.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game so far and has emerged as the team’s best clutch player. All of those numbers are up significantly from last season, as is his three-point percentage, which has increased from 36% to 47%. His ability to drain threes and drive to the basket just adds to his great passing ability and court vision, making him a very difficult player to defend against.

Northwestern’s offense is built around their backcourt of McIntosh and senior Tre Demps. Demps is very quietly having a solid season for Northwestern, averaging 15.2 pointer per game and carrying the team at times when they are struggling on offense. If these two can continue to produce in conference play, they are going to give a lot of opposing defenses trouble.

X-Factors

 Olah’s injury and Northwestern’s dependency on the three point shot put pressure on their perimeter players, who will need to step up if Northwestern wants to be able to continue their winning ways as the schedule becomes increasingly more difficult. They will need more consistent efforts from Scottie Lindsey and Aaron Falzon,

Lindsey has been in and out of the starting lineup so far this season, but has shown the ability to score in bunches and is hitting 42% of his shots from behind the arc. Lindsey will need his hot shooting to continue as he attempts to make up for Olah’s absence as well as Vic Law’s, who was lost for the season.

The freshman Falzon has been a much streakier shooter so far, but the offense is built to get him a lot of open looks and he is going to need to do a better job of taking advantage of them more consistently.

Another player to watch doesn’t often blow up the box score, but makes as much impact on the game as anybody – Sanjay Lumpkin. Lumpkin isn’t seen as a shooter, which leaves him open a lot, and he has taken advantage so far. But Lumpkin’s impact is seen everywhere, from defense and rebounding to his ability to play and guard multiple positions. As opposing teams are given more opportunities to scout Northwestern’s backcourt of McIntosh and Demps, Lumpkin will need to take advantage of increased scoring chances when those two are forced to give the ball up.

Road to March

 The Wildcats are looking to make their first NCAA tournament bid in school history, and they are off to a great start. If they want to find themselves on the right side of the bubble come March, they are not only going to have to keep it up, but improve as the season wears on.

The only way this is going to happen is if they stay healthy. After losing Law for the year and Olah for these first couple weeks, they cannot afford any more strikes to their depth. If they were to lose Demps or McIntosh, their chances are as good as dead.

Northwestern has shown several flashes of being a very good team, but if they want to reach the next level they cannot settle for the way they have been playing. Some of their slow starts will not fly against Big Ten competition. Coach Collins will need to continue to push his group to improve every game.

Only one loss so far seems like a gift, but they have also not really faced the adversity that comes with losing. So far they have found ways to win games they most certainly would have lost last year. That is the first step. How this team responds to the highs and lows over the course of the season will prove to be just as large a factor as the results of the games themselves.