Over the next two weeks, beginning Monday, March 23, we'll be holding an extended Inside NU roundtable to rehash and analyze Northwestern men's basketball's 2014/15 season. We'll pose one question every day -- some general, some more specific; some looking back, some looking ahead -- and a group of our writers will respond. Additionally, over the coming days, we'll have separate articles breaking down some of the topics in more depth.
On Wednesday, we underlined some negative takeaways emanating from the Wildcats' 2014/15 season. Today, we wrap this roundtable up with the big question, the elephant in the room:
It's been well documented that Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament. Is next year the year? Will Northwestern make the NCAA Tournament in 2016?
Kevin Trahan, Josh Rosenblat, Jason Dorow and Henry Bushnell all gave their answer to this question near the end of the latest Pound the Talk podcast. You can listen here.
Ben Goren: No, they won't. The jump from sub-.500 team with a ridiculously soft non-conference schedule and a soft Big Ten (at least they were in the regular season) to 20-some wins and a tournament quality résumé is absolutely huge. Those kinds of jumps don't happen real often. People will undoubtedly talk about how Northwestern was a point or two away from beating teams like Maryland or Michigan or Ohio State, but they also just barely escaped with wins against Elon and North Florida. On the whole, those good breaks and bad breaks basically evened out.
This team will undoubtedly be better, don't get me wrong. At least one of the freshmen is going to make a notable leap (and probably at least one is going to have a sophomore slump), Nate Taphorn will hopefully stay healthy, and hopefully Falzon or Ash can come in and help out immediately. That will help. But let's look at what the rest of the conference is doing.
The teams below Northwestern will get worse. Minnesota loses four key players. Penn State loses its only two real basketball players in D.J. Newbill and Ross Travis. Nebraska is, well, Nebraska, and Rutgers is going to find a way to be even more pitiful than they were this year with Myles Mack, Kadeem Jack, and Junior Etou ether graduating or transferring. Iowa is one team that finished high last year that might fall towards the bottom without Gabe Olaseni and Aaron White, too.
But this conference is going to be scary everywhere else. Michigan State still has Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes, plus they're bringing in at least one and maybe two five-star recruits. Wisconsin should still be good even without Josh Gasser and Frank Kaminsky (though losing Sam Dekker would make them drop pretty far), plus they have an unusually good recruiting class for their standards. Purdue brings back just about everyone. Indiana loses literally no one to graduation, plus has a great recruiting class. Illinois loses Rayvonte Rice but brings back Tracy Abrams and has a top-15 recruiting class. Michigan, if LeVert comes back, will be a popular dark horse team in the conference. Ohio State brings in five top 105 recruits. Maryland brings back Melo Trimble, Jake Layman, and Jared Nickens plus has a five-star center coming in in Diamond Stone.
Northwestern has to climb over at least three, maybe four teams who finished ahead of it last year to make the Big Dance next year. That's just too much to ask. I expect the Wildcats to make the NIT, and at least once next season, there will be an article written about how close Northwestern is to making the NCAA Tournament. I just can't see it happening.
Zach Pereles: Yes. There will be parades down Sheridan Road. It all starts with the backcourt, and I think that will be a strength next year. An entire offseason in a college weight room will really benefit Bryant McIntosh, and Tre Demps developed into a go-to-guy late in the shot clock and late in the game during the latter portion of the season. Demps had previously been held back by poor shot selection and over-dribbling, but the rising senior has minimized those issues.
Depth might be an issue here, as the Johnnie Vassar transfer leaves the Wildcats shorthanded at the point guard position. Up front, Olah hopefully continues to improve his play and toughness, and Wildcat fans will be pleased with the addition of Joey van Zegeren I think. The big, physical, athletic Dutchman provides stark contrast to Olah's more lumbering play, but van Zegeren competes well on the boards and runs the floor well, which might allow Northwestern to get out on the break more often. I think the improved, steady play of McIntosh and Demps in the backcourt, the (hopeful) physical development of Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey and the addition of van Zegeren and stretch-four Aaron Falzon will mean an upper-middle finish in the Big Ten (fifth or sixth). They might need a play-in game invite to make it, but I think 2015/16 is finally the year.
Kevin Dukovic: The NIT? Maybe. But the NCAA Tournament? Barring anything miraculous, odds are the streak will continue. Northwestern should be better next year. Ash and Falzon are upgrades over Sobolewski and Cobb, and McIntosh, Law and Lindsey should all improve with a year of experience and more time in the weight room this summer. Still, I give NU about a 25 percent chance of sneaking into the Big Dance. Olah would have to average 15 and 10, Law and Lindsey would have to make really big jumps and Falzon would have to play at a high level right away for this team to squeeze out 20 wins. Possible? Yeah. But I just don't see it happening.
Northwestern fans aren't going to like reading this, but I think Northwestern will have an even worse shot (15 percent chance in my opinion) of making the tourney in two seasons without Olah and Demps. Unless Collins finds a serviceable big man to replace Olah, Northwestern will take a step backward. That's why it's so important for Collins to maximize the potential of the 2015-2016 team. A lot has to come together next year for NU to go dancing. It probably won't happen. But you never know.
Josh Burton: Not next year, but the year after next. A decent amount of talent is going to be drained from the Big Ten next season but in two years, it's going to be even more significant. By then, McIntosh, Law and Lindsey will all be upperclassmen -- and presumably more physically capable of competing in the tough Big Ten. Also, Ash, Pardon and Falzon will have made the big jump between their freshman and sophomore seasons. Sure, Alex Olah will be gone, but NU's vast depth across the rest of its roster by that point will be more than enough to make up for Olah's departure.
For those questioning how the Wildcats can make the Tournament without a center, look at a team like Maryland from this season. The Terps may have gotten knocked out in the Round of 32, but they were the conference's second-best team -- and a top-10 team in the nation -- without much, if any, production from their group of 5s (Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky). In college, teams don't need star centers to be successful; they just need enough playmakers at the other positions, along with sufficient depth. Olah will be missed, but a developed McIntosh, Law and Lindsey -- plus this year's strong recruiting class -- will let NU fans forget about him, more or less, as the Wildcats make program history.