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Northwestern basketball 2017-18 season predictions

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The Wildcats enter this season with real expectations for the first time...ever.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is finally back. Before the most hyped season in Northwestern history tips off, though, we have to make some predictions. Heading into 2016-17, not a single staffer picked Northwestern to win more than 9 Big Ten games or make the NCAA Tournament. There will likely be a bit more optimism this time around. Let’s get right to it.

Will Ragatz

Regular season record: 24-7 (12-6 Big Ten)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen

MVP: Scottie Lindsey

Breakout Player: Anthony Gaines

It gives me a somewhat unsettling feeling that there are expectations this large and universal for Northwestern, but I just can’t see a team this talented, deep and well-coached not returning to the NCAA Tournament. We know how good Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law are, but the latter two can be even better. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for Dererk Pardon in his third season; I think the supremely mobile big man will average a double-double and continue to be a force defensively. When you bring sharpshooter and underrated athlete Aaron Falzon back into the mix along with a bench that combines a veteran and talented young players (true freshman Anthony Gaines is going to play a much bigger role than people think), the sky is the limit for the Wildcats. Northwestern will go 12-1 in non-conference play, with the lone loss coming against Oklahoma, and take advantage of an easy front half of the Big Ten schedule to get to 12 league wins.

Caleb Friedman

Regular season record: 22-9 (11-7 Big Ten)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament First Round

MVP: Bryant McIntosh

Breakout Player: Dererk Pardon

Northwestern is a Tournament team this season. There's too much experience, too much talent and too much known ability for me to say otherwise. But I have major concerns about the team's ability to make enough threes to be elite and score with the top teams in the conference. I think Dererk Pardon is primed to break out into one of the Big Ten's best bigs; he'll be a walking double-double in 2017-2018. But in my view, the Big Ten is better than people are giving it credit for in the middle — Wisconsin, Michigan and Maryland will still be good this season. Plus, non-conference games against Georgia Tech and potentially Texas Tech will be tougher than people think. For those reasons, my win projections are on the lower side, given the expectations many have laid out.

Chris Grismer

Regular season record: 23-8 (11-7 Big Ten)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament First Round

MVP: Bryant McIntosh

Breakout Player: Barret Benson

With a weaker non-conference schedule and roster-wide offensive improvement, I think Northwestern will see an improvement on last year’s regular season. This team is going to look different. Swapping Aaron Falzon for Sanjay Lumpkin in the starting lineup will provide more space for McIntosh, Lindsey and Law to attack. It should also give Pardon more breathing room on the block. All the starters minus Pardon should see an uptick in shooting efficiency, so I’m expecting the Wildcats to put up bigger scoring games. Last year, Northwestern was 15-1 in games in which the team scored at least 70 points (The one loss? Gonzaga). The absence of Lumpkin on defense is going to be one of the major subplots of the season, but I think Northwestern’s offense will be good enough to propel the Wildcats to another NCAA Tournament appearance. Oh, and as I predicted on Pound the Talk: Benson is going to be stealing minutes from Pardon come February and March. Don’t @ me.

Martin Oppegaard

Regular season record: 25-6 (12-6 Big Ten)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Elite Eight

MVP: Bryant McIntosh

Breakout Player: Jordan Ash

I tried to find a non-conference loss, I really did, but I came up with nothing. Northwestern runs through its fairly easy non-con slate to set itself up nicely for Big Ten play. Even then, I think six losses is a lot, but the Big Ten is full of parity and someone has to lose. The Wildcats drop games to Purdue, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and lose to one unexpected opponent - maybe to Indiana in Bloomington. Gaines, Pardon and Benson are all great breakout picks. Add junior guard Jordan Ash to that list. Ash has been working on his shot and ball-handling this offseason and he figures to see an increased role this season as more than a bench player known for defensive tenacity. With tremendous depth, Northwestern exceeds its lofty 2017-18 expectations with a little “run” as a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament. One year later, the slipper still fits.

Davis Rich

Regular season record: 22-9 (11-7 Big Ten)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Round of 32

MVP: Bryant McIntosh

Breakout Player: Anthony Gaines

I have a feeling this team will take longer to gel than expected. Losing Sanjay Lumpkin really hurts on the defensive end, and incorporating Aaron Falzon, Rapolas Ivanauskas, and Anthony Gaines into the rotation will take some time. Northwestern drops games to Georgia Tech and Oklahoma in non-conference play, then slips up early in conference play at Penn State and at Indiana. As Caleb mentioned, the Big Ten’s middle class is much larger than before. Nonetheless, this veteran-led team will ultimately hit its stride and ride offensive production from Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, and Dererk Pardon to a fifth-place Big Ten finish. I’m expecting big things from Gaines and Vic Law on the defensive end as well. Eleven wins in one of the toughest conferences in the country should be enough for a top-six seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Noah Coffman

Regular season record: 23-8 (10-8 Big Ten)

Postseason: Big Ten Runner-ups, NCAA Tournament Elite 8

MVP: Dererk Pardon

Breakout Player: Anthony Gaines

Like Martin, I don’t see a clear non-conference loss for a veteran Wildcats team with a ton of talent. But Big Ten play will be a slog. Though the Wildcats will drop a few more games than they should in conference battles thanks to a Big Ten that is as balanced top-to-bottom as it has been in a while, Northwestern will grow more consistent as the season draws to a close. Combining an ability to win close games that has been cultivated over the past couple of years with improved offensive ability from Vic Law and especially Dererk Pardon, the Wildcats will make noise with a deep postseason run. Pardon will become one of the best centers in the conference on both ends of the floor, Anthony Gaines will provide valuable minutes off the bench, and reliable perimeter scoring will provide the final push that takes the program to new heights. Make sure you have some vacation days left when March rolls around.

Talia Hendel

Regular season record: 23-8 (12-6 Big Ten)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen

MVP: Bryant McIntosh

Breakout Player: Derek Pardon

Although it is a big goal, I don’t see any reason this team couldn’t reach for the Sweet Sixteen this season. This Northwestern lineup should be just as - if not more - talented than last season, particularly with the additions of Rapolas Ivanauskas and Anthony Gaines and the return of Aaron Falzon. Not to mention the vast improvements shown be Derek Pardon and Vic Law last season. NU’s confidence should be substantially higher than past years, so although they won’t be playing at their traditional home court of Welsh-Ryan Arena, I don’t expect that to have any significant effects. Yes, the student fanbase undoubtedly kept spirits up during tough games last season, but other than that, the wins were solely thanks to how the team played on the floor. At this point, making the NCAA tournament is not a goal, but an expectation. Therefore, there’s no reason not to set sights high for the post-season with a Sweet Sixteen appearance. As for the regular season, the Big Ten is not an easy conference, and it’s not unexpected to say that Northwestern is likely going to drop some games, but as for non-conference play, I don’t see many threats. I’d be surprised if this season didn’t result in another large step forward for the program.

Noah Coffman

Tristan Jung

Regular season record: 20-11 (9-9 Big Ten)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament First Round (or the play-in game)

MVP: Scottie Lindsey

Breakout Player: Isiah Brown

WARNING: EXTREMELY COLD TAKE

Oh, so 20-11 and a probable NCAA Tournament berth is pessimistic for Northwestern now? What a world. Yeah, I’m not sure the preseason hype is 100 percent justified for this team. Northwestern cruised through through a bunch of very bad Big Ten teams last year. That five-game January stretch was as easy as any Power 6 team will ever have it. When the schedule got tougher, Northwestern lost six of its last nine Big Ten games last year, and needed a few miracles to even win three games.

That scheduling is simply not happening this year. For starters, we only get to play Nebraska once. Secondly, Northwestern’s run of games from 1/20-2/25 is just brutal.

That’s a lot of tough games in a row, something that Northwestern has always struggled with in the Collins era the entire history of the team. 2014 saw a disastrous seven-game losing streak after upsetting Wisconsin and beating Minnesota. 2015 saw a brutal 10-game losing streak, all Tier A or Tier B KenPom games. 2016 had the post-Wisconsin 6-of-7 slide that took them from 3-2 to 4-8. And 2017 had it too, a truly mediocre last month and a half salvaged by The Pass and typical Rutger antics.

I understand that this is not last year’s team, or any other Northwestern team before it. This is a deeply talented team with proven players and interesting prospects. But I can assure you, the rest of the Big Ten is also going to better this year. It has to be. Illinois, Ohio State, and Indiana all made very good hires. They still have some talent on their rosters, and surely will be better. Iowa should be better. Penn State should be better. Heck, even Rutger should be a competent team. Meanwhile, Minnesota, Purdue, Wisconsin, and especially Michigan State are all returning strong NCAA Tournament lineups.

So what teams will lose games? I think Nebraska is in for a rough year. Rutgers, Ohio State and Illinois will probably falter down the stretch of this condensed season due to a lack of depth. However, everyone else seems roughly even for me. Does that mean Northwestern will be bad? No, but I do think we’re projecting a lot of improvement for this team and a lot of lucky breaks for them to go anything better than 10-8 or 9-9 in conference. As Collins always says, “it’s tough to win Big Ten games.”

Preseason predictions? We all know they mean absolutely nothing. What team was ranked No. 19 in the AP Poll last season? Ah yes, Syracuse, which went...19-15 and missed the Tournament. I don’t think that’s going to happen to Northwestern, but we have to calm down about predicting a guaranteed NCAA Tournament bid and such. Strange things happen in college basketball.

I’m mostly worried about scoring baskets. Chris Collins’ tortoise tempo and defensive schematics always seem to create good defenses. But is Northwestern going to rise from 59th in adjusted offensive efficiency to its new projection of 19th just because Sanjay Lumpkin (an uber-efficient scorer when used, by the way) is not on the floor?

I think Northwestern will at least go 20-11 and still be comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field. It’s not actually that hard to make the NCAA Tournament for good power conference teams. Northwestern was just uniquely terrible at that job for generations. The Wildcats should have enough quality conference wins to mitigate any disappoints, and I expect them to have a great postseason run in the Big Ten Tournament given how deep the team is. That should get them back in the NCAA Tournament, even if we have to sweat out the bubble for a week. But someone has to take the lower end of the spectrum.