Northwestern men’s basketball’s regular season officially starts in a week, but tonight is the first glimpse we’ll get into what the 2016-2017 squad has to offer as it takes on University of Illinois Springfield in an exhibition showing at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Prairie Stars are a Division II team that recently made the transition from the NAIA, and they shouldn’t pose too much of a problem for the Wildcats.
Still, this gives us a good preliminary look at where Chris Collins’s team is at, what progress from last year has been made and overall what we can expect to start the regular season. Here are five things in particular we’ll be keeping our eyes on.
Who joins (and subs in for) Bryant McIntosh in the backcourt?
With Tre Demps gone, this question has a plethora of possible answers. Junior Scottie Lindsey has had an impressive offseason, and Northwestern has legitimate size at every position if Collins chooses to employ the 6-foot-5 Illinois native in the backcourt. The other main possibilities are sophomore Jordan Ash, who didn’t see a ton of time last year, and aggressive freshman Isiah Brown, who has drawn praise for his ability to get to the basket but will have to transition to the college game. Additionally, the backup point guard spot is a key area; McIntosh isn’t going to play 40 minutes per game, especially not in an exhibition, so Ash and Brown should have their chances to make a positive impression.
How does Vic Law look in his return to action?
Expect some rust from the highly-touted redshirt sophomore who missed last year after surgery to repair a torn labrum. Law is a talented wing with length, strength and shooting touch, but he hasn’t played a true organized game in over a year. Still, he should be able to contribute on the boards early; that’s his greatest strength. Additionally, if he is in the flow of the game early, it will be interesting to see if and how much he has expanded his offensive game. Law struggled to create his own shot and turned the ball over a lot as a freshman. Now two years bigger and smarter, will he be a better individual offensive player?
Can Dererk Pardon stay on the floor?
Alex Olah is gone. Joey van Zegeren is gone. It is of utmost importance that promising sophomore center Dererk Pardon avoid fouls this year, something he could not do last year. Regardless of the level of the opponent, fouls are something that must be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Too often last year, Pardon was a half-step slow on a defensive rotation or overzealous on an offensive rebounding opportunity. We’ll see if he’s a smarter player ready to anchor the Northwestern interior.
How deep does Collins go on his bench?
This is a question that may not be obviously clear after one exhibition. The minutes will be skewed and even the walk-ons will probably get some time, but nonetheless the first few substitutions are worth keeping an eye on. Collins has praised the depth on this team, and at first glance there appears to be a decent amount of it. But how deep Collins goes will be interesting. Will Nate Taphorn or Gavin Skelly be important guys off the bench this year, or will they be afterthoughts? Both saw playing time wax and wane last year, with Taphorn getting a ton of court time in the final game, versus Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. How short is the backcourt rotation, and is there an odd man out between Ash and Brown? Eventually Collins will let the subs flow freely, but the first few rotations could provide some insight as to who sees playing time early in the year.
Who is the guy once the primary set doesn’t work?
Last year, we wrote about how the offense got far too predictable once the initial offensive set had been exhausted. The answer was almost always a high screen for Demps or a clear out for the streaky shooting guard. But now Demps is in Belgium, and Northwestern’s go-to scorer is in question. Can it be McIntosh? Can McIntosh still create looks for others late in the shot clock? Can Northwestern get away from its tendency to go 1-on-1 when the shot clock hits 10 seconds? We’ll hope to see more late shot clock creativity, especially given the relatively impressive number of guys (McIntosh, Law, Lindsey, Aaron Falzon, Taphorn) who can stroke it from the outside.