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Wildcat Shootaround: Northwestern basketball preseason edition

The regular season is about to begin; what should we be focused on heading into the new campaign?

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

With the Northwestern men's basketball regular season set to start this Friday against UMass-Lowell, our writers ask one question apiece about this team and how the upcoming season may play out.

Will the defense be respectable?

Tristan Jung: Northwestern's defense was pretty bad last year. By advanced metrics, it was about as efficient as the Sargent taco line at lunch. KenPom's defensive efficiency rating had them 165th overall in the country, a massive drop-off from NU's No. 14 rating from the season before. The Wildcats' main problem was that they failed to generate turnovers and couldn't defend opponents from three-point range. KenPom ranked Northwestern 339th in turnover percentage and 314th in opposing three-point percentage int he 2014-15 campaign

Since new addition Joey van Zegeren is an interior defense-oriented center, the Wildcats did not gain any new "lockdown" defenders on the perimeter. Coach Collins will have to find a way to improve the players at his disposal. The team needs Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps to defend better on the perimeter. The loss of Vic Law will severely hurt the defensive efforts, and his injury will force Lindsey, Lumpkin and Taphorn to get better at contesting shooters. Alex Olah can't get stuck behind screens and allow the opposing team to get an open shot. Northwestern needs to generate more turnovers across the board and could really benefit from improving the defensive rebounding, which was slightly below average.

Northwestern does have to play some of the toughest offenses in the country in the Big Ten, but the defense just needs to get better if the Wildcats' 6-12 conference record will be improved upon. The question will be whether Northwestern has the personnel to make it happen.

Loss of Law curtails NU's ability to go up-tempo

Henry Bushnell: Tempo has been a topic of discussion heading into every Northwestern season under Chris Collins. It was one of the areas in which NU fans wanted to see change from the old regime to the new one, and a change is exactly what Collins promised to bring. But in Collins' first two seasons in Evanston, Northwestern has ranked 341st and 339th in adjusted tempo — among the bottom 15 in the country. Heading into 2015-16, Ken Pomeroy again projects the Wildcats to play at a similarly slow pace relative to other teams around the country.

Is this the year the change occurs? I was prepared to say it would be until Wednesday. Vic Law was a big part of why I thought this team would play at a faster pace. But in losing Law, Northwestern loses both its best finisher in transition and, as Josh Rosenblat touched on in his analysis of the injury, a guy who can get a rebound and push the ball without having to find Bryant McIntosh or Tre Demps.

Chris Collins claims NU will still be able to increase the tempo. "I'd like to still push the pace a little bit," Collins said Wednesday. "I still think we have the personnel to do that. It's just one less guy." But I'm not so sure. On Tuesday night, I had written that NU would jump into the No. 100-200 range nationally in adjusted tempo. Now I'd be surprised if the Wildcats crack the top 200.

Which role player will be able to elevate their game?

Zach Wingrove: Heading into this season, Northwestern has three players; Tre Demps, Bryant McIntosh and Alex Olah; who are assured starting spots. These three players led the team in minutes per game last season and, provided they stay healthy, will continue playing significant minutes this season. That much we know. What we don't know yet, though, is if another player on the Wildcats' roster is capable of stepping up their game and seeing their minutes increase as a result.

Scottie Lindsey showed potential in his freshman season and his development this offseason, along with Vic Law's season-ending injury, could result in increased minutes this year. Lindsey has improved his offense from last regular season and his size at the 2 is a major asset. There are also two new additions to the team that have the potential to add new dimensions to the roster. Joey van Zegeren has proven that he's an excellent rebounder and interior defender who will be able to add depth to the front court, while Aaron Falzon has been touted as one of the more dangerous shooters in the Big Ten by Chris Collins and could turn into one of NU's best offensive scoring threats. If Northwestern wants to be competitive in Big Ten play, it'll need to see some of these role players make a jump this season.

Can Alex Olah show marked improvement?

Zach Pereles: The Romanian 7-footer has gotten better each season in Evanston. But this year, if Northwestern wants to reach new heights, he's going to have to get better again, and that remains to be seen.

One thing not to look at for improvement is per-game averages, because Joey van Zegeren will cut a bit into Olah's minutes. What should be analyzed, though, is improvement in the mid-range game, where Olah struggled mightily last year as well as per 40-minute rebounding numbers. With his size, Olah should grab 10 or more boards per 40 minutes as he was at about 9.3 last year and should be able to bump it up a little more in his senior season. It's his last year. He's far and away Northwestern's best offensive player that's taller than 6-8. It's time for him to take more of a leadership role on the court.

Aaron Falzon, a starter?

Ian McCafferty: Last Friday against Quincy, Chris Collins' starting five was McIntosh, Demps, Lumpkin, Taphorn and Olah. It's a pretty safe bet to say that this won't be the starting lineup once the season officially starts, but what will it be? McIntosh and Demps will be the starting backcourt and Olah will start at center, but that leaves the 3 and 4 spots relatively open. With Vic Law now out for the season, Northwestern needs a starting small and power forward, so why not Aaron Falzon?

Falzon scored 15 points in limited minutes last Friday and looked like one of the best all-around players on the floor. Also, Collins said after the game that he doesn't really see Taphorn and Falzon being on the floor at the same time since they have very similar playing styles. The solution to this problem would be starting Falzon and bringing in Taphorn off the bench. That way, there would always be a three-point threat on the floor.

The Massachusetts native has the talent -- he's probably one of the five most talented players on the team -- but he needs experience, and that's probably why he won't start, at least right away. Tomorrow night, Collins' starting five will most likely be McIntosh, Demps, Lindsey, Lumpkin and Olah, with Falzon being the first one off the bench. So for the moment at least this question is a non-starter (pun intended) but it will be worth looking at again in a couple weeks.

Does Alex Olah make the leap?

Josh Burton: The same question has been asked of Northwestern's center since the end of his freshman season: does he have the ability to become a true star? Olah has shown flashes of potential stardom often during his college career, but he has yet to fully put it all together for an entire season.

Now, as a senior, Olah only has one chance left to truly fulfill all of the expectations heaped on him since he arrived on campus a few years ago. The Big Ten has lost a lot of talented players and Olah is actually one of the more productive four-year rotation players left in the conference (along with Tre Demps of course) so it's now or never time for the 7-footer.

With improved footwork and conditioning, Olah's defense should get better while his offensive skills need some tweaks in order to develop him into a top-tier talent. He has displayed an improving jumper as well as refined post moves, both of which are good enough to help him score 15-20 points a night, should his teammates get him the ball. It seems like this might be the year for Olah, finally.

Treys for Tre?

David Gernon: Tre Demps -- Northwestern's married redshirt senior -- can carry a team offensively. We've seen as much throughout his time in Evanston, from his usage rate that ranked hum 65th nationally as a redshirt freshman to the ice-in-his-veins bombs from deep against Michigan last year in the Wildcats' home finale.

Demps played well over the summer in Spain, scoring 38 points in one game on 15-of-18 shooting, and in Northwestern's lone competitive game this season, last Thursday's exhibition game against Quincy, Demps shone as the best player on the floor. He ended the game as the second-leading scorer with 13 points. Categories he topped the team in? Minutes played and shots attempted.

He can certainly fill a statsheet up and last year, when he became the team's most efficient scorer, we saw what he was truly capable of. He should find a spot on an NBA roster if only for his ability to go one-on-one with a guy and make stuff happen. Although this is coach Chris Collins' deepest team at Northwestern, if the team is in a rut offensively and needs a basket, look for them to turn to the man who has made so many big shots in his career: Demps. If he can come through for them, look out for big things to come from Demps in his final college season.


Josh Rosenblat: Nate Taphorn has to play consistently this season. He just has to. There's no way a team that struggles to score should keep a 50 percent three-point shooter on the bench. Taphorn should play at least 13 minutes per night. Last season, the forward shot only 40 threes all year, making 20. That number should approach 60 threes this season. There's no reason why it shouldn't.

Behold, a shot chart with oh so much unTAPped potential (Ed. note: The pun was understood, but doesn't conform to InsideNU editorial standards). The threes are as red as a ripe tomato. Mid-range is as barren as the arctic tundra. And the slightly above average clip at the rim is encouraging. Nate Taphorn needs to play more than he did last season. Keeping him on the bench is a waste of a potentially game-changing shooter.

The impact of the Law injury

Martin Oppegaard: Northwestern was dealt a heavy blow today when the program announced that the sophomore wing would miss the entire season with a torn labrum. Law had put on weight and muscle in the offseason and was expected to be much more of a contributor than he was last year

What Law's injury tests most is the depth of this Northwestern team, something that Coach Collins has preached. Law played nearly 25 minutes per game as a freshman, and was expected to play at least 30 minutes per game in his sophomore campaign. His minutes will likely be divided among true freshman Aaron Falzon, Scottie Lindsey, Nate Taphorn and Sanjay Lumpkin. Gavin Skelly might even crack the rotation early on.

The loss of Law will loom large, especially come conference play with so many other freakishly athletic wings in the Big Ten. But this will be an opportunity for Northwestern and Collins to show their collective resilience and turn this setback into something positive.