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Inside NU Wildcat Shootaround: Entering the Big Ten grind

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

By all accounts, Northwestern has started Big Ten play pretty well. A 1-4 record doesn't necessarily reflect that, but the Wildcats very well could be as good as 4-1. That's basketball for you. So with a few days off as NU builds up to a tough Thursday-Sunday stretch, here is our collective "State of Northwestern basketball" address.

Josh Burton: Alex Olah can still redeem his season

One of the biggest Northwestern basketball storylines this year has been Olah's inability to consistently be the big scorer, and rebounder, that he probably should have developed into by now. His 22-point showing against Michigan was his first 20-point game since NU's season-opening win over Houston Baptist.

In the 16 games between his 20-point performances, Olah failed to reach double digits nine times, which is why his season average is a pedestrian 10.9 points per game. By no means is that bad, especially considering he's shooting almost 50 percent from the field, but for someone of his size and ability, it's a little underwhelming.

However, he has plenty of time to continue his good play from the last two games (averaging 18 points on 15-24 shooting in losses to Illinois and Michigan) and end his season with a flourish as NU has 13 more conference games left to go. Assuming he returns for his senior season, a strong finish to this could lead the foundation for a monster final year at NU for Chris Collins' star big man.

Henry Bushnell: Northwestern could make history

Unfortunately though, it wouldn't be the good kind of history. It would be the bad kind.

Recently we've written a lot about this team's inability to force turnovers, and it's impossible to underestimate just how big a disadvantage it is. Northwestern's steal percentage is an unbelievable 4.9 percent, meaning the Wildcats don't even force a live-ball turnover once per every 20 opponent possessions. To put that in perspective...

  • NU's mark is 350th in the country out of 351 teams -- second worst -- and only narrowly ahead of 351st-ranked Quinnipiac. 349th-ranked Delaware is all the way up at 5.5.
  • Since Ken Pomeroy started tracking steal percentage in 2002, exactly zero teams have finished a season with a steal percentage under 5.0. ZERO.
  • VCU's Briante Weber has an individual steal percentage of 8.75. So per every 100 possessions, Weber, on his own, gets almost four more steals than Northwestern does as a team. That's ridiculous.
  • It isn't only Weber (though he is far and away the best in the country). Eight other players -- including Minnesota freshman guard Nate Mason -- who play over 40 percent of their team's minutes have higher steal rates than NU does as a team.

So what's the deal? Is this about coaching style? Is it a personnel issue?

I thought it would be interesting to look around the country and see how other teams who are coached by former Duke assistants fare when it comes to forcing turnovers. Coaches who come from the same coaching tree tend to bring similar styles with them to their own gigs.

What I found is that of the five most prominent examples -- Duke itself, Tommy Amaker at Harvard, Mike Brey at Notre Dame, Johnny Dawkins at Stanford, and Steve Wojciechowski at Marquette -- four rank in the top 100 nationally in steal percentage. Marquette is 12th, and fourth among major conference teams. Stanford, the only one that doesn't crack the top 100, is 168th.

Collins must see something in his team that leads him to believe that more aggressive defense would do more harm than good. But alongside the ‘better athletes' narrative, that 4.9 number is confounding. It just makes no sense. And it's why Northwestern is losing games despite shooting better percentages that its opponents.

Josh Rosenblat: I'M BAAAACK

Josh Shootaround

In the words of George Costanza, "Every time I think I'm out, they pull me back in!"

I'm currently living and working in Washington covering politics for a little while, taking time away from my coverage of the Wildcats. In late December, I said my goodbyes to Chris Collins and his staff, declaring that they wouldn't have to deal with me for the rest of the season.

I was wrong.

This Sunday, I'm making my return.

I'll be at Maryland, covering the ‘Cats for the first time in the 2015 Big Ten season.

And as far as basketball is concerned, I'm especially looking forward to seeing how Bryant McIntosh handles Melo Trimble in a matchup of two of the nation's top freshman point guards.

Here's to hoping something like this happens:

Zach Pereles: Vic Law should contribute more to the offense, but Collins must put him in position to succeed

Against Michigan, Law looked out of sync early, picking up early fouls and launching two ill-advised threes. But later in the game, Law found his stride, and he finished 3/6 from the field and 3/4 from two-point territory. He can clearly contribute more offensively than he currently is. Despite his shooting woes, Law is a smart offensive player off the ball. When playing as a four, he finds soft spots in the mid- to high-post and gets good looks at the basket.

After a rough first 19:55 of the game, Law beat the first-half buzzer with a fadeaway jumper. He caught the ball at the top of the key on a pick-and-pop with McIntosh and took three effective dribbles to get into the paint before knocking down the shot.

Later in the game, with Olah catching fire and getting double-teamed, Law made a smart backdoor cut to the basket and finished a wide open reverse layup.

So how can Law, a superb athlete, be a better offensive player? He should stop shooting threes. How can Chris Collins get him to do that? Get him in the post more often. Law can usually get his shot off no matter who is guarding him thanks to his jumping ability, and when he's at his best, the frosh can get to the line often.

Right now, Law is attempting 2.28 threes per game, fourth on the team. I would love to see Collins get him in the post more, where his field goal percentage rockets, and he can also attack the offensive glass. In Law's best offensive game (16 points against Elon), he shot just one three and made eight of nine free throws. How did he get to the line? He attacked the basket and caught the ball inside the three point arc, something Collins should heavily encourage him to do as the season progresses.

Daniel Rapaport: Bryant McIntosh and Chris Collins: a Bromance Made In College Basketball Heaven

Chris Collins likes Bryant McIntosh a lot. I mean, he likes the kid a ton. If you take his quotes from today's practice at face value, he full blown loves the freshman.

After McIntosh was on the floor mourning his hard to believe and even harder to stomach missed layup at the buzzer of the Michigan game that would have sent the contest to overtime, McIntosh said that Collins picked him up and told him that he loves him. Collins says that he sees a lot of himself in the freshman point guard- the grittiness, the live and die with each and every game attitude, the blue collar playing style. It's safe to say that Collins and McIntosh- we'll call them Collintosh- have a full blown bromance, and it's refreshing to see.

Collins is beloved by both his players and the media, and interactions like these are a main reason why. He seems to relate to each of his players (he played at the highest level of college basketball for one of the sport's most successful programs) and cares for them both as basketball people and, as Pat Fitzgerald would say, as young men.

In the age of the one-and-done, when it's hard to see a freshman star as more than a glorified mercenary who's only on campus because he has to be, it's awesome to see a coach-player relationship that seems so genuine. It's safe to say that McIntosh will not declare for the NBA Draft after this season, and Collins' taking such an interest in McIntosh's development can only help McIntosh's progression as both a basketball player and a leader of the program.

McIntosh will be around for a while and hopefully Collins will be too, and I for one and am excited to see how this bromance progresses.

Jason Dorow: The Curious Case of Sanjay Lumpkin

Even Benjamin Button would be amazed by the regression of Sanjay Lumpkin's season thus far. The sophomore forward is still getting 20+ minutes per night, but floor time is the only number showing up in his stat sheet lately.

Since Northwestern's contest against Central Michigan on Dec. 17, Lumpkin has not scored in double figures once and he is averaging 2.9 rebounds per game. In conference play, his numbers depreciate to 2.4 points and 2.4 rebounds in nearly 25 minutes per outing.

I don't expect Lumpkin's non-conference numbers to maintain their pace in Big Ten play. He's not going to be able to beat better defenders off the dribble, nor is he going to get as many "hustle points" through transition and offensive rebounds. It's just surprising how drastic the drop-off has been.

This is the same guy who averaged 9.5 points per game in his first four outings and the same guy who shot above 61 percent from the field during the non-conference slate. It seemed like he had a rejuvenated offensive drive and willingness to attack the basket.

Lumpkin didn't really lose time during Nate Taphorn's hot stretch either. He still got roughly 25 minutes per contest because they needed him to guard the likes of Branden Dawson and Nigel Hayes, which he did relatively well. And he leads the team in steals with 14 on the year.

Want to guess who's second? Alex Olah. With 8.

So perhaps Lumpkin isn't this team's biggest issue. But the Wildcats need him to corral more than two boards per game and at least be an offensive threat. Guarding Alex Olah and Bryant McIntosh becomes a lot easier when Lumpkin's man can camp in the paint, and NU doesn't have many other offensive weapons right now.

Ben Goren: Welcome to Hell Week for the Northwestern backcourt

Northwestern's backcourt, defensively, is a minus right now. Against Michigan, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. combined for 32 of Michigan's 56 points. Against Illinois, Kendrick Nunn and Aaron Cosby combined for 44 of Illinois' 72. Michigan State were led by Travis Trice's 18 and Denzel Valentine's 17. You have to go back to the Wisconsin game to see Northwestern get beaten by a frontcourt, when Hayes, Dekker, and Kaminsky sunk the Wildcats. Now, granted, those first three teams are defined much more by their backcourts than their frontcourts, but it should still worry Northwestern fans. Trice and Valentine are a great duo and Walton Jr. and LeVert are almost as good, but Nunn and Cosby are far from giant killers.

The bad news for Northwestern is that this week brings with it two of the best pure scoring guards in the conference. The crazy part is that they're both freshmen. D'Angelo Russell is having a stupid good year. 18.6 points per contest, 5.1 boards, 4.8 assists, and 1.8 steals as well because sometimes he gets bored just being one of the best offensive players in the conference sometimes. Russell is a 6-5 combo guard and, paired with a smaller, more athletic Shannon Scott, is a nightmare for Northwestern. Who's going to guard Russell? Demps? Cobb? Do you have to put one of your bigger, better defenders on him like Lumpkin or Law? Then who matches up against the freaky athletic Sam Thompson and the beefy Marc Loving? Ohio State is going to have a bunch of plus matchups and, unlike Michigan, they've got great depth and an actual center, however apathetic he may be, in Amir Williams.

Maryland isn't any easier and their super-freshman Melo Trimble is a treat to watch. The Terrapins bring with them an interesting mix of experience and youth. Trimble is the 8th leading scorer in the conference with 16.1 ppg, and Dez Wells, Trimble's senior backcourt partner, is no slouch either at 13.7 per contest. The size matchups for the Terrapins are nearly identical to Ohio State. Wells is 6-5 like Russell, but is a tank at 215. Trimble is 6-3, 2 inches taller than Shannon Scott, but not tall enough to be a problem for the 6-3 Bryant McIntosh. Northwestern's backcourt should be at least in the same ballpark height-wise, but athletically, it's apples and oranges. McIntosh, Demps, and Cobb are going to have their hands full defensively. Don't be surprised if their offensive output suffers for it.

Kevin Dukovic: Is Taphorn's injury a cause for concern?

Yesterday at practice Chris Collins announced that sharpshooter Nathan Taphorn will miss at least Northwestern's next two games with the same foot injury that kept the sophomore out of Saturday's loss to Michigan. A season ago this news wouldn't have seemed noteworthy, but this year, as our Josh Rosenblat chronicled earlier in the month, Taphorn has impressed in minimal action and emerged as Northwestern's most efficient offensive player. How much of a loss is Taphorn against Ohio State and Maryland and who needs to step up in his absence?

Taphorn only averages 9.2 minutes per game, but his absence was felt Saturday. You could argue that had Taphorn played, NU would have pulled out the victory. Tap averages a team-high 59 percent from beyond the arc and has shot the ball exceptionally well recently. Over his last three games he's averaged 7 points in just 14 minutes and shot a whopping 73 percent from the field. Do you think that production would have come in handy for a Northwestern team that shot 25 percent from three against Michigan and lost by just two points?

As the Wildcats proved Saturday, they still have enough offensive firepower to compete in the Big Ten without a role player like Taphorn, but as this losing streak has illustrated, every possession counts. And Northwestern can use all of the offense it can get, especially against two of the stingiest defenses in the conference in Ohio State (third) and Maryland (fourth). So, how will the Cats replace Taphorn's production?

Expect to see more minutes from Sanjay Lumpkin, JerShon Cobb and Scottie Lindsey these next two contests. Even though health is always a concern with Cobb, he is very capable of making up for the scoring void all by himself. As Ben Goren detailed earlier in the week, Cobb has seamlessly morphed into an efficient spot up shooter for this team. If he, Lumpkin and Lindsey all attempt marginally more shots than average from three, they should be able to collectively make up for Taphorn's production. They might not be quite as efficient as Taphorn from deep, but as Kevin Trahan wrote about this week, Northwestern should be taking more threes as a team anyway.