After the football team's strong start but fairly quick demise over two games, attention has begun to shift to the upcoming basketball season. Although Northwestern has never sent a team to the NCAA tournament, there are reasons to be optimistic heading into this season.
The consensus surrounding the 2015-16 men's basketball team has been that this is Northwestern's most talented team of Chris Collins' tenure, and it may even rival the 2010-2011 roster led by John Shurna, Juice Thompson and Drew Crawford. Indeed, the team returns seven of its top eight scorers from a year ago and the one player of that group who left, JerShon Cobb, spent much of last season injured.
Although the team ended the year under .500 in both the regular season and in conference play, the season ended positively in many regards, with the Wildcats winning five of their last seven regular season games, including a thrilling double-overtime victory over Michigan in the home finale.
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However, they did finish 6-12 in conference play last season, a poor mark any way it's sliced, not to mention fourth from the bottom of the standings. There's no reason to think navigating the Big Ten will be any easier this year; it may not be as top-heavy with Wisconsin losing last year's unanimous National Player of the Year, Frank Kaminsky, but every game is going to be very competitive.
Collins said as much at Northwestern's media day.
"With coaching and where everybody's programs are at at this point in the Big Ten, it's a great league," he said. "I know the ACC is a great league, as well. I was a part of that for a long time. But top to bottom, I can't imagine a better league than our league this year."
After a strong offseason, though, and supposedly high-quality incoming freshman class, this year's team may be uniquely positioned to compete with the top dogs in the Big Ten and, if things break right, earn themselves the first NCAA tournament bid in the school's history.
It all starts with this team's unprecedented depth. Last year, nine players earned double digit minutes per game, but one or two of those players were not Big Ten-caliber players and the team also did not have a reliable backup for its one true big man, Alex Olah. This year, however, this team could go 10 or even 11 deep and not stress fans out too much. In addition to the return of seven of the top eight scorers, Northwestern also secured a pivotal commitment from graduate transfer big man Joey van Zegeren, previously of Virginia Tech. He should prove invaluable minutes down low.
On top of that, an impressive collection of incoming freshmen round out a deep team. Collins has proved his worth on the recruiting trail, putting Northwestern back on the map, especially with local kids from Chicagoland. This year, he brings in a four-star recruit and two three-star recruits who should all be able to compete for minutes right away.
Indeed, at media day, Collins made a point of saying he thinks the depth of this year's team is going to be one of its strengths.
"We're going to be a team that can be a strength in numbers kind of team," he said. "We're going to have to utilize our pieces. We're going to be team on a given night there could be a different leading scorer. There's five or six guys on a given night could lead us in scoring. Coaching is not me just saying this is how I want to play. Coaching is looking at the group we have and saying okay what do we have, what are we good at. Let's devise a system and a plan to utilize these things."
Depth has another added benefit, as well, not always seen by the public. Having a deep, talented squad leads to more competition in practice, as rotation and bench players push the starters for minutes. Collins has said that having two full teams that compete every day in practice has been extremely beneficial. Also, having to watch your back for playing time should only serve to motivate the team. With this team's superb chemistry and talented coaching staff, there shouldn't be any worries about this competition breeding contempt amongst the rotation players. In addition, playing against more talented players day in and day out will only raise the talent level of the team overall.
While leading guard Tre Demps is undoubtedly important to this team's success, the team will go as far as the broad shoulders of Alex Olah can take them. The big Romanian came into his own last season, displaying stretches last season that rivaled any big man, save Kaminsky, in the Big Ten. However, his play was inconsistent. One night he would drop 14 and 12, the next night not so much. Now, a senior, the onus is on him to provide a consistent presence down low the team can pound the ball to. Defensively, as well, he should serve as the anchor on an improving unit.
"His next step is we need him to be consistently playing at the top of his game, instead of so many highs and lows," said assistant coach Brian James, who has played an integral role in Olah's development.
The increased depth this year plays a part in this, as well. Last year, as Northwestern's only reliable big man, Olah played a lot of minutes, averaging nearly 30 a game -- many of them punishing minutes grinding down low against the conference's other talented big men. He played a lot of what Collins called "tired minutes," leading to slower feet defensively, more foul trouble and poorer offensive production.
This year, with more big men Collins can turn to, that shouldn't be the case.
"He played a lot of tired minutes last year," Collins said. "He would look at me and give me the nod that he would want a sub and I would just look the other way because there was just nowhere to turn. Him being a little bit fresher at all times can make him better and even more productive."
Another benefit of having more bigs is Olah will be able to battle them every day in practice. Last year, he was not challenged much in practice, according to Collins. This year, going against van Zegeren and freshman Dererk Pardon every day in practice should only serve to elevate his game.
"I don't think there's any secret," Collins said. "In order for us to be a good team and a competitive team, we need him to be a force for us each and every night."
Making it rain in Spain
The last piece in this puzzle is Northwestern's summer in Spain.
The team spent the last week of August in Spain, playing five different teams there. Northwestern dropped the first one by two, before reeling off four straight wins by an average of over 34 points.
Collins stressed at media day the importance of getting the team off the a good start, noting the past two season this hasn't necessarily been the case. Two years ago, the record reflected that but last year, Collins noted, they won some games they maybe should not have and inflated their record early on.
This year, he said, it will be important to get off to a good start and that momentum should continue into the later part of the non-conference slate and Big Ten play.
"One of the things we have to do better is play better basketball out of the gate," Collins said. "It's going to be very important this year that we play good basketball in November, December."
Getting the chance to play competitive games together before the season starts jumpstarts this process. Collins and his staff get to see how the returning players improved in the offseason and how the new guys gel with the team.
In addition, Collins said he used this chance to test out different lineups and rotations, starting a different five in every game.
"We had a summer trip that was outstanding for our team," he said. "Lot of guys got a chance to play. The way I approached the trip was we wanted to win, there was no question about it, but I started a different lineup every game. I played different guys together -- everyone got pretty much equal time so the guys could really show what they could do out there against people who didn't know what we were doing."