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Eight Questions of Fate No. 8: Who needs to step up most from last season?

A lot of players need to increase their production this season, especially sophomore center Dererk Pardon.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

As the Northwestern Men’s Basketball team enters its fourth year of the Chris Collins era, tangible progress is of the utmost importance. In order for that progress to occur, several players are going to have to step up.

When looking at who needs to make the biggest jump in role and performance from last season, a few names come to mind.

The most obvious candidate is Vic Law.

Law, Collins’s best ever recruiting coup, will have to play a variety of roles for the Wildcats, including being the team’s best defender and athlete. But for the sake of the question, Law didn’t play last season so any contribution from him is a major improvement; for this reason, Law is out.

Some may look to Bryant McIntosh, the team’s best player. However, for the most part, we know who McIntosh is. And while he most certainly must get to the foul line more and improve his three-point percentage this season, McIntosh will still be the team’s most reliable player. Like Law, he’s also important, but there isn’t enough of a question mark surrounding his performance for him to be the answer to this question.

You could look at wings Scottie Lindsey and Aaron Falzon, who will be asked to develop all-around offensive games and defend better than last season. Improvements from both would go a long way to a Northwestern postseason appearance, but the fact that they play at the Wildcats’ deepest position means the team could survive if one or both hasn’t improved too much from 2015-16.

The answer to the question lies in the team’s 6-8 center from Cleveland, OH: Dererk Pardon.

Pardon, entering his first season as a starting big man, has several flaws that hopefully have been addressed throughout the offseason.

The biggest question about Pardon is whether or not he will be able to stay on the floor; he averaged almost six fouls per 40 minutes last season. For a player who will see a significant increase in minutes this season, that statistic is troubling.

Even if Pardon does stay out of foul trouble, there are other concerns about his game.

Defensively, will Pardon be able be an average or plus defender on pick-and-rolls? Also, will he be able to handle bigger, stronger players in the post? What we saw last season tells us that both areas aren’t strong suits for Pardon, who has below-average foot speed and size. If Pardon can improve in both areas, that would be a major development for the team—having the ability to switch at least some pick-and-rolls and not having to double-team opposing big-men in the post would give Collins some crucial defensive flexibility.

On the offensive end, Pardon must show growth and maturity. He probably won’t have a consistent mid-range jump shot, but he has be able to score some points in the half-court offense. Last season, Pardon’s offensive repertoire was mostly limited to second-chance points and opportunities right around the rim. If the development isn’t there, the team will have virtually no inside presence offensively, because behind Pardon, the depth chart is thin.

Getting production out of true freshman Barret Benson right away is a tough ask, and junior Gavin Skelly is more of a glue guy who typically plays the four. Skelly is a good passer, but you can’t really throw him the ball in the post and let him go to work. You couldn’t do that last season with Pardon either, but it’s important to remember that Pardon wasn’t expected to play at all as a freshman. Only after Alex Olah’s foot injury did Collins burn Pardon’s redshirt and thrust him into the fold. It would be unfair to expect a steady and polished post presence from Pardon, but progress and at least some dependability—to go with his ferocity on the boards— would be huge.

Against the likes of Thomas Bryant, Caleb Swanigan and Ethan Happ in the Big Ten, Pardon will have to play big. He’ll have to stay on the floor, and he’ll have to compete on both ends. Being the lead big on a team is no small role for a player as young as Pardon, and he doesn’t have proven commodities sitting behind him.

As the final season in the current iteration of Welsh-Ryan Arena gets underway, it’s a crucial time for the evolution and direction of the program. For the team to get to where it wants to be, it’ll need a much-improved Dererk Pardon patrolling the paint.