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Can Northwestern compete in the Big Ten?

The Wildcats might not have the talent to improve from last year.

Big Ten Basketball Tournament - Second Round Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Big Ten lost a number of big names this summer. Caris LeVert and Denzel Valentine were NBA first round picks, A.J. Hammons and Diamond Stone went in the second round and Yogi Ferrell and Jarrod Uthoff were picked up in August, among others.

That leaves a talent void in the conference, with Northwestern looking to break into the top eight. Unfortunately, the team’s roster isn’t quite strong enough to compete with the Big Ten’s elite. With Tre Demps and Alex Olah gone, the Wildcats are bereft of a much-needed scoring punch in both the paint and on the perimeter.

Demps and Olah scored nearly 35 percent of Northwestern’s points last season, an enormous burden that now must be redistributed among the team’s rising stars. Bryant McIntosh may have set the university’s single-season assist record last year, but he’ll have to turn his passing game up a notch for Northwestern to score enough points.

The three-point line may be the team’s best weapon. Last year, Northwestern finished fourth in the Big Ten in three-point field goals made, shooting 35.8 percent from deep. Returning starter Aaron Falzon was second on the team in threes made, and junior Scottie Lindsey, expected to see an increase in playing time, converted nearly 41 percent of his long-range attempts last season.

Creating open looks from the outside requires opposing defenses to collapse into the lane, away from shooters. Northwestern doesn’t have anyone who can do that consistently, as evidenced by the team’s last-place Big Ten finish in free throws attempts in the 2015-16 campaign.

McIntosh and Dererk Pardon will need to develop chemistry in the pick-and-roll game, because that’s the only way the team will get anything going toward the basket. McIntosh is a skilled passer, so if he can slither into the lane, and attract defenders in the process, he should be able to kick it out to the perimeter for three-pointers.

Without a go-to scorer that can create off the dribble, it’s going to be a team effort to put points on the board for the Wildcats. Forcing turnovers and getting out in transition can alleviate the pressure on Northwestern’s half-court offense to produce, but with the team finishing dead-last in steals in the conference last season, that doesn’t seem like a realistic possibility.

What does this mean for Northwestern’s performance in the Big Ten? Chances are the team is looking at another sub-.500 campaign in the conference. However, if the Wildcats can beat down on Big Ten basement-dwellers like Nebraska, Minnesota and Rutgers, they could be a couple upset wins away from nine conference vitories.

Several Big Ten teams lost their best players after last season; Northwestern is one of them. The absence of Demps and Olah will be felt, especially on offense, and as a result, the Wildcats are likely taking a step back after winning 20 games last year.