Northwestern’s 9-2 start has made some noise around the country. Joe Lunardi recently had the Wildcats on the bubble, and after a win against Dayton, they are nearing ever closer to the tournament.
There have been plenty of encouraging signs over the first 11 games. Here’s what we’ve been impressed with.
Josh Burton: Scottie Lindsey’s consistent play on offense
The big question with Lindsey has not been his talent or potential to become a top-flight scorer, it has been his ability to consistently string together solid games. In his first two seasons, Lindsey scored at least 10 points on 13 occasions, with only two instances of consecutive games in double digits.
As a junior, he has reached double figures in all 11 of Northwestern’s games and is averaging just about 15 points per contest on .480/.446/.864 shooting. He is scoring at a higher rate, and more efficiently, even as he has played more and taken more shots. Almost every aspect of his game has improved, and he even notches almost four assists per game too. He arguably has been Northwestern’s best offensive player thus far.
Chris Grismer: Northwestern is playing smarter offensively
Last season, the Wildcats shot 35.8 percent on 24.3 three-pointers attempted per game, ranking 121st in the country, according to Kenpom. The team also struggled to get to the free-throw line, averaging only 16.5 attempts per game and shooting a disappointing 66.7 percent when they got there.
This year, Northwestern has attacked the basket more, while also increasing its efficiency from deep. The team is currently averaging 18.8 free-throw attempts per game, shooting 75.8 percent from the line. In addition, the Wildcats are taking 22.5 three-pointers a game and shooting 38.3 percent from that distance, ranking 71st in the nation.
Will Ragatz: Vic Law is back and better than ever
One of the biggest unknowns heading into a season filled with them was whether or not Vic Law could turn the potential he flashed as a highly-touted freshman into consistent production after missing an entire season with a shoulder injury. So far, the answer has been unequivocally yes.
There’s an argument for Lindsey, but in my mind Law has been Northwestern’s best player during its 9-2 start. He’s tied for the team lead in scoring (14.9 points per game) and tops in steals, hitting over 47 percent of his three-pointers and grabbing almost five rebounds per game as well. Law clearly grew as a player in his year away from basketball and has returned to the court with a newfound vigor and attitude. His combination of length, athleticism and shooting ability has breathed new life into the Wildcats’ starting lineup.
The only concern is his ability to get to the free throw line against good competition. In the two games this season in which Law failed to attempt at least one free throw, Northwestern suffered its only two losses. If he can fix that and keep playing at a consistently high level, the Wildcats will have a chance to win a lot of games in the Big Ten.
Zach Pereles: The Wildcats are physically the best they’ve ever been
For the first time in the Chris Collins era, Northwestern is simply good enough physically to hang around with and beat teams. They have the length (Lindsey, Law) and strength (Sanjay Lumpkin) on the wings, which allows them to bring in offensive specialists like Nate Taphorn and play him extended minutes. Bryant McIntosh is quicker and stronger than ever before, and the Wilcats have athletic, if undersized, bigs. The Wildcat defense is as good as its ever been under Collins, and the offense is finding new ways to score thanks to its impressive personnel.
In the recent past, Northwestern’s been overwhelmed by big guards and athletic bigs. Think of last year’s squad sans Law and with undersized Tre Demps joining Bryant McIntosh in the backcourt, and Alex Olah roaming the paint. Olah is much bigger but nowhere near as athletic as Gavin Skelly or Dererk Pardon. And we’ve seen the dividends of the lanky Lindsey at shooting guard on both ends of the court. Going forward, improved length and athleticism across the board (except size at center) will be key in conference play.
Tristan Jung: Sanjay Lumpkin
Shall we take a look at the famed instrument of losers everywhere, those oh-so maligned “statistics?’ Sanjay Lumpkin currently has the best KenPom “offensive rating,” a measure of personal offensive efficiency, of anyone on the team. Yes, Sanjay Lumpkin is Northwestern’s most efficient scorer in non-conference play, and he’s been terrific in almost every facet of the game for the Wildcats this season. I’m sure we all saw that coming.
Strangely, Lumpkin’s outburst of offensive productivity in his senior year is not part of any change in offensive gameplans regarding his usage whatsoever. He was basically the same low-usage, low-upside player on offense in the last two seasons, but he’s come out in 206-17 with a career-best 66 percent effective field goal percentage. The jump has been dramatic, and while his usage rate hasn’t gone up by much, his increased efficiency has helped Northwestern on numerous occasions.
Meanwhile, Lumpkin is also doing better at everything that he was good at during the last three seasons. His offensive rebounding, defense and ability to provide size, length and athleticism are better than ever. In fact, everything is just better with Sanjay Lumpkin thus far. His block rate, assist rate and turnover rate have all improved significantly as well. He’s also shooting free throws at a 70 percent clip (another career-best). He’s quickly proving to be indispensable on this team, something that would’ve been hard to foresee just three months ago.
Martin Oppegaard: Winning a “must-win” game
Northwestern’s season did not hinge on the outcome of Saturday night, but the win over Dayton will have a huge impact later on in the season. In fact, it already has experts projecting the Wildcats to make its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance. I can’t think of the last truly meaningful, high-stakes game that Northwestern has won, but the team will certainly have a few more opportunities to do to it again in Big Ten play. After losing heartbreakers to two excellent opponents, Butler and Notre Dame, beating Dayton is encouraging, regardless of how it happened.