With Northwestern basketball currently immersed in its toughest stretch of the 2015-16 season, we take a look at the most pressing topics facing the team, or some juicy topics around the Big Ten, in the latest edition of Wildcat Shootaround:
Henry Bushnell: #WellActually, Chris Collins has proven he's a good coach
Twitter was ablaze Tuesday night with criticisms of Chris Collins. Bench Demps. Bench Olah. Why the hell is Pardon not in? On and on they went. I've actually heard multiple people suggest over the past few days that Collins is a good recruiter but a bad basketball coach. And I think that's absurd — and not solely because after Collins removed Pardon from the game for defensive purposes with 4:32 remaining, Maryland didn't score another point in regulation.
I too was still skeptical of Collins the basketball coach coming into this season. My take wasn't positive or negative; it's just that I wasn't sure yet. However, in year three, Collins has proven that he's good enough as a basketball coach to take Northwestern to where he and so many others want it to go.
Whether it's the Chameleon defense or the two-big lineup, Collins has shown an adaptability that all good coaches possess. Despite some struggles in Big Ten play, his offense has taken shape. It looks bad when outside shots aren't falling, but spacing, ball-movement and off-ball movement have all improved considerably. The Wildcats have taken fewer mid-range shots each year under Collins (33 percent of field goal attempts in 2013-14, 31 percent in 2014-15, 26 percent in 2015-16), while they've gotten more looks at the rim (25, 31, 33). Given what Collins has to work with — which, with the regression of Demps and Olah's injury, still isn't that much more than he had last year — the offensive strides are impressive.
Is there still room to grow for Collins as a coach? Of course there is. There are times when his in-game adjustments don't come quickly enough, or are ineffective. There are times when his player rotation is less than ideal. But that's to be expected. After all, Collins is still only in his third year as a head coach. And this team isn't entirely his yet. He wants it to play up-tempo, but it can't quite yet. He wants it to play man, but it's simply not built to. It's clear though that the passion is there. I also now think it's clear that the basketball acumen is there, and it's only a matter of time before we all realize the extent to which it is.
Josh Rosenblat: Northwestern can win at Iowa on Jan. 31.
Even when he makes a "successful play," Adam Woodbury looks as uncomfortable as a young giraffe whose neck is too long and legs too thin for him to maneuver adequately. The problem is, Woodbury's not a cute little giraffe. He's the starting center for one of the best college basketball teams in the nation.
Zach Pereles: Is Northwestern actually better than it was last year?
Bryant McIntosh has been outstanding. He has become "the guy" as Henry so excellently wrote earlier this month. Dererk Pardon has taken strides. Aaron Falzon is an inconsistent but good shooter, and his overall game continues to expand. Joey van Zegeren has been a HUGE upgrade from Jeremiah Kreisberg, who was basically incompetent last year.
However, the team has not progressed despite being relatively young last year and retaining most of its pieces. Scottie Lindsey hasn't made the jump we thought he could make, and it's often said that the freshman-to-sophomore jump is the biggest one. Nate Taphorn has fallen out of the rotation because his defense remains inadequate. Gavin Skelly isn't anything more than an energy guy. Sanjay Lumpkin has had moments but his role hasn't changed and probably never will. Combine that with Tre Demps' struggles and Alex Olah's health, and this year's roster really isn't better than last year's. When you couple the underdevelopment of a few young pieces with one big preseason injury and the underperformance of two veterans, you get a team that hasn't taken the strides on an individual level to take the stride we hoped it would take on a collective level.
Tristan Jung: In appreciation of Joey van Zegeren
At the beginning of the season, there were questions about the role graduate transfer Joey van Zegeren would play. Although he was shaky at the start of the season, he has really improved by necessity since Alex Olah went down. While the legions of "Free Pardon" supporters are still out there, van Zegeren has been very competent as a rim protector, rebounder, and on offense. During overtime against Maryland, van Zegeren made some great plays around the rim, just like he has all season. He was huge in the Wisconsin win, and he has been a godsend with the injuries that Northwestern has suffered to Vic Law and Olah.
Van Zegeren's shooting percentage within 5 feet of the basket is 72 percent according to Shotanalytics.com. He is not quite as efficient as Pardon (76 percent), but his finishing at the basket is still solid. Although his free throws still need some work, he's improved slightly since the beginning of the season. On defense, Northwestern allowed opponents to shoot 58 percent at the basket last season. This year, that is down to 55 percent, partly due to van Zegeren's efforts.
Lastly, Northwestern's improvement on the glass has been stunning, and van Zegeren is a major part of the rebound in rebounding. After years of futility on the boards, Northwestern is currently fourth in conference offensive rebounding percentage and second in defensive rebounding percentage. Considering Northwestern was 13th and 12th in those categories, respectively, last season, the turnaround has been rather incredible. Northwestern nearly beat Maryland because the Wildcats dominated the glass, a statement that would have seemed crazy last year. Van Zegeren has to be one of the main reasons Northwestern has greatly improved at this aspect of the game. He will be missed next season.
David Gernon: Pour one out for Bo Ryan
When we were asked at the beginning of the season to pick what we thought would be the biggest game of the season for Northwestern, I circled Jan. 12: Wisconsin at Northwestern. Students would be back at school for about a week; the quarter system starts slow, so I figured Welsh-Ryan Arena would be packed with students hoping for an upset. I thought Bo Ryan would still be patrolling the sidelines for the Badgers. As it turned out though, Northwestern winning did not really qualify as an upset. Although the defending conference champions, Wisconsin was no longer the team to beat in the Big Ten.
Following Ryan's surprise announcement of his retirement, the Big Ten is not the same. I think we all thought Wisconsin had a Spursian system in place: the next guy in line would step up and the results would be the same. Nothing against current head coach Greg Gard, but the results have not been the same this year. Wisconsin is 10-9 overall and 2-4 in Big Ten play. Hopefully this week's upset of Michigan State signals the team is getting back on track. Either way, I think we can all agree the Big Ten is not the same without Ryan. So next time you look up and see Wisconsin trailing, pour one out for Bo Ryan.
Ian McCafferty: Nate Taphorn's shooting isn't worth his defense
Through seven games in Big Ten play, Northwestern's three point shooting has been less than stellar. In its four losses, the team has hit less than 25 percent of its threes. One easy solution to this problem would seemingly be getting more playing time for your best shooters, one of which is Nate Taphorn. Taphorn is shooting 41 percent from three on the season and is actually Northwestern's best shooter from deep based on percentage. So he can shoot and shoot well, why shouldn't he get more minutes?
The problem is that basketball is more than just chucking up threes (although at times while watching Northwestern you'd think differently). Playing defense is a pretty vital part of any competitive game of basketball. It's not that Taphorn can't play defense athletically — he may look slow at times, but still athleticism isn't the problem. The problem is that Taphorn quite often looks lost while on the defensive end. He loses his spot in the zone, he visibly looks confused and he's hurting the team. It's a running joke that every time Taphorn hits a three he's allowed two mistakes on defense, but those mistakes are starting to add up. Coach Collins has seemingly caught on. Taphorn didn't play at all against Maryland. I'm not calling for an outright benching of Taphorn, I just don't think he's the solution to the three point shooting problem.
Kevin Dukovic: The collapse of Tre Demps' confidence
What makes Steph Curry such a special player?
Many would point to his abilities on the court-- his deadly shot, ridiculous handles, underrated quickness, incredible passing ability, exceptional work ethic and scrappiness. But if you ask me it's not the skills he possesses but the confidence he has in those skills that make Curry the player he is. He's so confident in his abilities that he consistently attempts things on the court that no one else even considers. A bad shot for everybody else is a good shot for Curry. It doesn't matter to him. Every shot he takes is going in. He truly believes it. Case and point:
Curry's level of confidence is extremely rare. It never wavers because of his talents and work ethic. But for most athletes, that's not the case.
In basketball, as in life, confidence is fickle. It's hard to get and easy to lose. Just ask Tre Demps.
Last season there wasn't a player on Northwestern more confident than Tre Demps. Demps was the team's leading scorer and go-to guy in crunch time. He demanded the ball late in games and like Curry believed that every shot he took would fall. And many of them did. He was unbelievably clutch. His effective field goal percentage in the last 10 minutes of games was 58 percent, and in the last 3 minutes of games, was 69 percent.
And as our Josh Rosenblat illustrated in a preseason profile of the guard, Demps carried this swagger into his senior season:
"At one point during Big Ten Media Day in October, a reporter from a publication that presumably covers Indiana basketball sat next to Demps. The reporter asked him what is was like "knowing you're going to go up against a guy like Yogi Ferrell every year."
Demps stared at him blankly for six excruciating seconds.
That was it. End of conversation."
But this season has been different. Demps is shooting just 19 percent from three and 53 percent from the line in conference play. And Bryant McIntosh has supplanted him as "the guy" for Northwestern. Demps is clearly losing confidence in his stroke and even went as far as to admit it after Saturday's loss to Penn State.
"To be honest, I didn't feel quite confident [coming in]. Every player goes through that."
Some think Chris Collins should bench Demps for his poor play. I disagree. I think Collins should find more ways to get Demps to attack the basket. The alternatives off the bench aren't good. And Demps won't regain confidence sitting on the bench.
There's no doubt Demps has lost some confidence in his abilities. And as Northwestern's season wears on, everyone is wondering if he will regain that confidence in time to salvage his senior season. Everyone, including Tre Demps.
Sam Brief: Offensive rebounding is Northwestern's key to success
Northwestern struggled in its first two seasons under Chris Collins, and rebounding just 22.5 percent of its misses in year one and 27.6 percent in year two was a huge reason why. In its February 28 loss to Illinois last year, Northwestern grabbed just THREE offensive boards as a team.
This year, watch the tape. The Wildcats routinely crash the offensive glass the second a shot goes up — not staying passive as they tended to be last year. As a result, they've stayed extremely competitive in close games like at Maryland on Tuesday. Even though Northwestern shot poorly (34.8 percent), the Wildcats notched an astounding 38.1 percent offensive rebounding percentage, which kept them competitive even against a top-tier team on the road. As January moves into February, keep an eye on the offensive glass and the Wildcats' aggressiveness on it as a major key for Northwestern.
Daniel Rapaport: Bryant McIntosh is good, and not just Northwestern good
It's not so much his statistical output, which is impressive to say the least. It's the complete control Bryant Mcintosh has when he's on the floor. When "BMac" has the ball, Northwestern's offense functions smoothly and, for the most part, effectively. And when he doesn't have the ball in his hands, someone always seems to end up with the ball in their hands, behind the three-point line, with 10 seconds to go on the shot clock.
Every opposing coach recognizes just how important and talented McIntosh is, and I'm beginning to sense that Northwestern fans are truly appreciating what a gem of a point guard they are lucky to have. I haven't been following Northwestern sports very long — shockingly, Northwestern doesn't have a huge fan base of non-alumni out in California — but this guy is as good as I've seen, and perhaps the most fun Northwestern athlete to watch.
It's been an up-and-down season and there will surely be more highs and more lows. McIntosh will have incredible games where he plays at an All-Big Ten or All American level (vs. Wisconsin) and he'll have nights where he's asked to carry virtually all the scoring load and he'll struggle (at Maryland).
But make no mistake about it, Bryant McIntosh is a straight baller, and Northwestern is blessed to have him running the point.