In this week's edition of the Inside NU roundtable, the staff projects Northwestern's conference win total, discusses Northwestern's defensive regression and ponders Vic Law's future as a Wildcat.
1. Northwestern's offense has improved in its last couple outings, but the defense is giving up more points than it did last year. Has the defense actually regressed or is this a product of strategy change?
Daniel Rapaport: There's always the risk of a midseason let down. Conference games are usually more taxing than nonconference games, and this is particularly the case for this Northwestern team that played a weak nonconference schedule and plays in the physical Big Ten. But I think the biggest reason for the regression has been that they're simply playing better teams- it's easier to shut down Mississippi Valley State than it is to shut down Michigan State or Wisconsin (or even Illinois).
Henry Bushnell: I think the defense has definitely regressed. I mentioned this on Wednesday night in the Rapid Reaction, but Collins has an interesting problem that he didn't have last year. In 2013/14, NU's best offensive players -- Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb and Alex Olah -- were also it's best defensive players. But with Crawford gone and JerShon Cobb slowed by injuries, that's not really the case anymore. Now, NU's best offensive players are Olah, Demps, Cobb and Bryant McIntosh. But Collins' best defensive options are probably Olah, Lumpkin, Law and Vassar. That means some of the defense has had to be sacrificed for offense.
Jason Dorow: Echoing Henry more or less, I think Collins is in a tough situation with the freshmen. McIntosh, Law and Lindsey have to get playing time for their talent-level and offensive contribution, but they've all had their fair share of defensive struggles. Cobb isn't what he used to be, and while Taphorn has added some muscle, he's still not quick enough to guard most Big Ten small forwards. It's hard to find the right balance of players when the roster features so many guys that are basically offensive or defensive specialists.
Zach Pereles: Northwestern has upped the tempo in the last few games, leading to higher scoring games. McIntosh has been much better than expected leading the offense from the point guard position, but his on-ball and off-ball defense has not been stellar. He especially struggles with off-ball defense. He loses his man and, unlike in high school, he isn't quick enough to recover. It's not uncommon for freshmen to struggle in this regard. Another struggle for Northwestern's defense is their lack of forced turnovers. With another year of experience and and hitting the weights, the Wildcat freshmen, namely McIntosh, will have better quickness and anticipation, leading to more turnovers and, in general, better defense. Overall, due to inexperience at the most important defensive position (point guard), Northwestern's defense has taken a step back this year.
2. Vic Law was given high expectations heading into his freshman season at Northwestern, expectations which he hasn't quite lived up to. What should be his role for the remainder of this season and in the coming years, what's his potential as Wildcat?
Rapaport: He's got to carve out a niche somewhere, and I think his best bet is to devote most of his energy to the defensive end. On offense, he seems almost uncomfortable and hasn't looked to attack the basket, which is what most of us expected to be the staple of his offensive arsenal. It's tough to speak on his potential as a Wildcat, as he's just a teenager and how his body matures (or doesn't mature) will play a huge role in his development as a basketball player. But I'm remaining optimistic and believe that if he can add some muscle and polish his offensive skills, he'll be one of Northwestern's better players.
Bushnell: As for his role this year, I think it should remain about what it is right now. It's just up to Law to be better in that role -- to be better on the defensive end, to get more of the "energy points" that Collins loves to talk about. As for the future, I do buy the idea that once his body develops, he'll get better. But he can only be a program-changer if he's got a complete supporting cast.
Dorow: I'd like to see Law worked into an expanded offensive role down the stretch. He's one of Northwestern's most efficient shooters when inside the arch. He's good at using off-ball screens and slashing through the lane, which would be the right places for Collins to incorporate him more often. As for the future, I think Law isn't going to come into his own until junior year. He will eventually be a tremendous player, great on both ends of the floor, but not until he puts on more muscle and refines his offensive repertoire.
Pereles: Law settles for a lot of long, contested two-point jumpers, which is not a good thing. I still think, however, he can be a key contributor, especially on the glass. In just 24.5 minutes per game, he averages 5.0 rebounds. Law is a superb athlete who is struggling with both his jumper and the physicality of Big Ten play. He reminds me of Virginia's Justin Anderson, an athletic freak who struggled mightily with his shot for two seasons, before turning into a deadly shooter this year as a junior. This season, Law's energy and effort on the boards will be his greatest contributions, but I have no doubt he will eventually become a key contributor for the Wildcat offense as well.
3. We've gotten a taste of this Wildcat team in conference play, but with so many close games, it's still hard to pin down where they lie in the Big Ten. How many conference wins will Northwestern finish the season with and why?
Rapaport: It's going to depend on how many close games they can win, and they've already dropped two. Quite simply, this team isn't good enough to have many -- if any -- comfortable wins in Big Ten play. I'm going to stick with the prediction I made of five wins, just don't ask me who they'll come against.
Bushnell: I'll say they get to six. It's pointless to go down the schedule and pinpoint some games as Ws and others as Ls, so I won't tell you who the five will come against either. But in general, I think this team will be in more games than they were last year. Last year, 10 of the Wildcats' 18 Big Ten games had single-digit margins of victory, and they won 6 of those games. This year, I think at least 12 will be, maybe 13 or 14. But I also think they won't be able to win 60 percent of those games -- between 40 and 50 percent is more realistic. That's where I get the six wins from.
Dorow: I'm going to agree with Henry and Danny in that Northwestern will be in a lot of close games, and those games could come anywhere on the schedule. That's just how the Big Ten is this year. I'll go with five wins. They are going to pull off one nice upset, just like last year, but otherwise, it will be a relatively uneventful conference season.
Pereles: As bad as it sounds, I think Northwestern only winds up with four Big Ten wins this year. The team is no more than four or five plays from being 3-1 in conference play at this point. Down the stretch, however, the Wildcats simply haven't made enough plays to win two winnable close games (Michigan State and Illinois), and I think that will be a theme for the rest of the year. I think Northwestern will beat Michigan once (in two chances) and Purdue at Welsh-Ryan, and pull off one more win somewhere along the road. At the end of the year, however, the team will have been just a few plays each game from double-digit conference wins. Good teams find ways to win when they aren't at their best. It will take time for Northwestern to be one of those teams.