With Northwestern basketball under two weeks away, it's time to start addressing the most important issues facing this team and the questions it must answer as it hopes to progress toward the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament. We'll call this segment the "Eight Questions of Fate," as the answers to these questions will likely determine how close Northwestern gets to that goal. Today we're discussing the intermediate step between where NU is right now and the NCAA tournament: the NIT.
Northwestern basketball looks wholly different than it did on March 27, 2013.
That's when Northwestern AD Jim Phillips hired Chris Collins, then the Associate Head Coach at Duke, to usher in a "NU era" of Wildcat basketball. An immediate boost in program visibility ensued, as did a gradual but steady increase in recruiting success and, thus, on-court talent.
The first recruiting coup came in the form of Vic Law, whose signing was significant not only because of his 4-star status, but also because he's from the Chicagoland area, a region Collins' predecessor Bill Carmody had trouble mining. But it was the signing of a 3-star point guard from Indiana by the name of Bryant McIntosh that has been most impactful. McIntosh has developed into one of the conference's best point guards and is the undisputed leader of this team.
The next year brought another 4-star in New Hampshire native Aaron Falzon, the stretch-4 that Collins coveted, as well as Dererk Pardon, who will start at center this season. More success followed in 2016 in the form borderline 4-stars Rapolas Ivanauskas and Barret Benson as well as the Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Washington, Isaiah Brown, whose performance in the season-opening scrimmage against Illinois-Springfield suggested he'll see significant minutes.
By and large, the significant contributors on this year's squad are Collins' picks; only seniors Nathan Taphorn and Sanjay Lumpkin are leftover from the Carmody era. The "Collins still doesn't have his players" justification just isn't valid anymore, as he's had three classes to tailor this team to his desired style of play. And the team has shown marked signs of improvement: after going 6-12 in conference in 2013-14 and 2014-15, Northwestern went 8-10 last year and won 20 games. The total win count was spurred on by a really soft nonconference schedule, but 20 wins are 20 wins.
Collins has this program trending upward via sustained recruiting success, securing a desperately-needed, $100 million-plus renovation of Welsh-Ryan Arena, and marginal yet consistent improvement in actual basketball games. There is, however, one tangible marker of progress that Northwestern has failed to achieve in the Collins era, and that's a berth in a meaningful postseason tournament.
The answer to the question that heads this article is a nuanced one. The progress off the court is there; the recruiting and renovation make that clear. But such progress has a limited shelf life without a corresponding uptick in on-court success. (The recruiting pitch of "we're building something special" recruiting pitch isn't effective forever—it preferably evolves into "come be a part of something special.") If the Wildcats are to show the on-court progress vital to sustaining positive momentum, they'll need to be better than the previous three Northwestern teams Collins has coached.
Northwestern finished last season ranked 68th in kenpom.com's overall rankings. Washington finished 66th and made the NIT as did Georgia, which finished 71st. Yes, kenpom.com isn't the sole criteria for the NIT selection committee, but Northwestern wasn't far off from reaching that tournament last year. At least, Northwestern wasn't much worse than the teams that did receive an invite. If this year's team is better than last year's—which was the best of the three Collins has coached—they will almost certainly make the NIT. Thus, the type of on-court progress Collins and his staff are looking for would be epitomized by an NIT berth.
The loss of Tre Demps and Alex Olah, two of Northwestern's top three offensive contributors per kenpom.com, won't make that any easier this year, that's for certain. But Northwestern gets Law back from injury and will be led by a more experienced and physically mature McIntosh. The two freshmen, Brown and Benson, should contribute immediately on what will be the most athletic Northwestern team in years, if not ever. There's enough talent and depth to make up for the loss of Demps and Olah, who were undoubtedly crucial but undeniably flawed players.
Not making the NIT wouldn't be catastrophic, though, given the loss of those two. Plus, it's the 2017-2018 roster that looks most dangerous—McIntosh will be a senior, Law and Falzon and Pardon juniors, and Benson and Brown sophomores. But Collins and his team are expecting to turn a corner this season. That would mean meaningful postseason play.
It's time for fans to do the same.