We're so close. There's just over three weeks until the season gets going for Chris Collins and Northwestern, and there are plenty of expectations for the encore to the best season in school history.
On paper, the Wildcats project to improve from a year ago, but basketball is played on hardwood, not paper. Northwestern will have to play up to lofty expectations if it's going to take another step forward this season, but it has the personnel to do it. Collins' group is a veteran-laden team that will likely be deeper than a season ago, and there are opportunities for growth from familiar faces and a few new additions. Last week, I wrote about some off-the-floor questions the team faces, but here are the on-court factors that will be of the utmost importance this season for Northwestern basketball.
1. Bryant McIntosh's three-point shooting
Northwestern's offense asks a lot of its wily point guard. B-Mac gets the offense into its sets, serves as the primary playmaker, and often has to make something out of nothing in late-clock situations on pick-and-rolls. It's hard to be super efficient with that kind of load on his plate, but improved outside shooting would go a long way toward opening up the Northwestern offense. After shooting 36.6 percent from deep as a sophomore, that number dropped to 30.7 percent as a junior. If he can bring that percentage up some, which could come if he can play off the ball more often (more on that to come), opposing guards will have to play him tighter, allowing the Cousy Award Watch List honoree more room to get into the lane and distribute.
Better three-point shooting from McIntosh would elevate him into First Team All-Big Ten conversation.
2. Vic Law's ability to attack off the dribble
Law is probably the best athlete on Northwestern's roster. He's also probably the team's most versatile player, as he guards multiple positions at a high level and keeps a defense on its heels with timely shooting and electrifying finishes around the rim. Where Law could expand his game is by getting into the lane and blowing by defenders when they try to take away his shot. He takes a lot of long twos, and has shown an ability to make them, but he could take his game to a new level by getting all the way to the rim and passing up on some of those. He'll garner enough respect as a shooter to face some hard close-outs, so being able to eliminate defenders and act as more of a playmaker in the offense would take a lot of pressure off of McIntosh. Just over 26 percent of Law’s field goal attempts came at the rim last season, for context.
3. Aaron Falzon's defense
Many people project Falzon to slot into Sanjay Lumpkin's vacant power forward position in the starting lineup, but Falzon and Lumpkin are completely different players. That isn't to say one is necessarily better or worse than the other, but their skillsets are almost polar opposites. Lumpkin helped Northwestern be one of the best defenses in the country inside the three-point line, and his ability to box out defenders and help Dererk Pardon on the glass was an underrated component to the Wildcats' defense. He improved from past seasons on the offensive end, but he was still fairly challenged in that area.
Enter Falzon, a 6-foot-8 sharpshooter who will be more of a stretch four than a traditional one. Offensively, he'll open up the floor for everyone, making some tantalizing small lineups possible. There are questions about his defense, though. He isn't really built enough to bang with bigs in the post like Lumpkin could for stretches, and he probably doesn't have the quickness to stay in front of smaller wings. If he can improve from his freshman year two years ago at that end of the floor — which is definitely feasible given that he's had more time in a college weight room — Collins would be able to keep him on the floor for longer stretches. That's a major boost in that it gives Northwestern four capable outside shooters in the game. Not many defenses will be equipped to deal with that.
4. Isiah Brown's development as a ballhandler and decision-maker
Simply put, B-Mac's minutes were too high at times last season. Chris Collins has admitted as such. But with no quality backup option on the roster at the time, Collins had no choice but to leave his junior captain in the game. His 34.2 minutes per game last season were actually down from 2015-2016, but his minute totals reached the high 30s for much of Big Ten play. When Scottie Lindsey went out with mononucleosis, McIntosh played nearly every minute, including a heroic 40-minute outing in Northwestern's upset win in Madison.
Though no clear-cut backup emerged last season, there's reason to be optimistic about Isiah Brown filling that void this season. As a freshman, Brown was an uber-aggressive attacker, a role that he was valuable in. But his efficiency was lacking, his turnover rate was higher than his assist rate, and he didn't really know when to slow down. A year of seasoning and coaching should undoubtedly help in that respect, and could be enough for Collins to play Brown at the point for significant minutes. Having a relatively fresh B-Mac will pay big dividends, and giving the senior guard more time off the ball (where he can catch and shoot from deep) could present an interesting look. Depth-wise, Brown's improvement from year one to year two is crucial.
5. Dererk Pardon's volume of production offensively
By all accounts, Pardon is primed for a breakout year. When asked who he thought would make the biggest jump on the team this season, Collins said he's circling Pardon as that guy. There's a lot to like. Defensively, the Ohio native is supremely talented. He’s everywhere on the glass, alters and blocks shots at a high rate (he blocked 6.3 percent of shots a season ago) and has the quickness to move with perimeter players in certain spots. Offensively, Pardon hasn't gotten a ton of plays designed for him thus far in his career, so a lot of his production has come on putbacks.
That could change this season. Collins said that Pardon is becoming a reliable option on the block, and the team should be able to throw the ball into him more often this season and in years past. For Northwestern to be one of the Big Ten elite teams, Pardon needs to be one of its elite big men. Collins thinks he can do that.