The hype is real for Northwestern basketball. Returning the top five scorers from a Round of 32 team and adding multiple talented pieces, the Wildcats are in the preseason Top 20 of the AP Poll, the Coaches Poll, and KenPom. After last season broke down the barrier, what would you consider a successful encore?
Will Ragatz: Finish in the Big Ten’s top four
Obviously, returning to the NCAA Tournament is the most obvious goal for this season, and one that can’t be taken for granted. But for this team, it’s not the only goal. There’s no reason why Northwestern can’t finish in the top four of the conference. On paper, that means at least winning more conference games than everybody but Michigan State, Purdue, and Minnesota. I don’t care who the other teams are; Northwestern needs to take a step forward and crack the top four this season for it to be considered a successful one. Of course, the things that would accompany that feat — presumably 11 or more wins, a decent NCAA seed, and ideally competing for a title into February — are considered in this baseline.
Caleb Friedman: Making the NCAA Tournament
I know there are Top 25 expectations, which may constitute Sweet 16 expectations, and I know making the NCAA Tournament and losing in the first round would technically be a step backward from last season, but I still view getting back to the Tournament as a successful season, even it means a loss in the first round. To get back to March Madness means that Northwestern would've aptly handled the highest expectations in program history, and it would provide a firmer bedrock of sustained success to carry over into 2018-2019 and sell 2019 recruits on. The players and coaches should want to make a deep run in March, and that's possible, but making it back to the big dance keeps last season's momentum going.
Martin Oppegaard: A Sweet Sixteen appearance
Last season set a precedent for Northwestern basketball. With six of its top seven scorers back, plus the return of Aaron Falzon and addition of freshman Anthony Gaines, the NCAA Tournament is an expectation. Now it's time for Northwestern to go one step further. The Sweet Sixteen seems like an appropriate send-off for a recruiting class that did so much for the program.
My biggest worry about this season concerns Northwestern's ability to mitigate its lack of a home court advantage. The Wildcats' biggest home games will be played in front of a neutral - at best - crowd. Will Northwestern be able to win the season defining game, a la Michigan, without a significant student section and purple-clad crowd? Time will tell.
Davis Rich: A top-five finish in the Big Ten
One year after finishing in a four-way tie for fifth place in the Big Ten with a 10-8 conference record, Northwestern finds itself in a unique position to contend in 2017-18. Aside from perhaps Minnesota and Michigan State, the Wildcats return the most talent in the conference, bringing back their top five scorers and 85.5 percent of their points from last season. Of course, losing Sanjay Lumpkin and Nate Taphorn hurts, but continued development from Vic Law and Dererk Pardon as well as the return of Aaron Falzon should ease the debt.
The Big Ten is full of risers this season — Penn State, Rutgers, and Iowa come to mind — so expecting a conference title seems unreasonable because there are a lot of places to slip up. Nonetheless, Northwestern should be able to replicate its place in the top half of the Big Ten standings. Experience is perhaps Northwestern’s greatest asset. Leveraging that advantage in Big Ten play will make this a successful season for Northwestern. This team will prove itself if it can mitigate bad losses as well as mistakes late in games en route to 11 or 12 conference wins.
Chris Grismer: Making the NCAA Tournament
I’ll echo what Caleb said: This is the first season in program history when Northwestern is expected to make the NCAA Tournament. Expectations have never been higher than they are right now. By proving that last season wasn’t a fluke, the Wildcats can continue to grow into one of the country’s budding programs, selling recruits on sustained excellence and postseason basketball. Sure, it would be nice to advance even further than the team did last year, but simply returning to the Big Dance should count as a successful season.
Noah Coffman: Making the Sweet Sixteen
I know this seems like arbitrarily high expectations for a team whose first NCAA Tournament berth came just last year, but success for me means improvement. Especially for a team returning 4 starters and their top 5 scorers while trotting out a rotation that is one of the most experienced in the country, a step upwards should be the baseline for the season to be deemed a success. Making the tournament will still be an important achievement, but the most talented and well-rounded team in Northwestern history deserves some expectations on their shoulders. A berth in the Sweet Sixteen signifies an arrival in the national conversation that will be important in order for the Wildcats to attempt to solidify themselves as a program that is here to stay even after the most decorated senior class in school history departs.
Tristan Jung: Winning 22 regular season games
Why 22? It would represent another positive move in the Chris Collins era. Northwestern’s regular season win totals since he arrived are 13, 15, 20, and 21. 23 wins would represent another gradual step into becoming a consistent 20-game winner that is in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid every year. KenPom has them at 21-9, but with the soft non-conference schedule (no disrespect to the D2 Lewis Flyers) and an uncertain Big Ten, Northwestern could definitely hit 22 wins with this team. Whether it will happen given the stadium move and random happenstance is another thing, but I think 22 wins and whatever postseason comes afterward is a successful season.
Talia Hendel: Sweet Sixteen
Northwestern fell just short of this last year, with their second round appearance in the tournament. However, with only two personnel losses to graduation and an impressive group of returners/incoming freshmen, this team should only improve this season. That said, a Sweet Sixteen appearance isn’t the only way to mark an improvement, but it is the obvious next step as a program. Yes, making the tournament again will signify success to a fairly large extent, particularly considering it has only been done once in Wildcat history, but there’s no reason to play it safe and limit goals to simply a repeat of last season. If the personnel, confidence, and rankings have largely upgraded going into this season, why shouldn’t NU further their success where it matters the most. More wins across the regular season – particularly in the Big Ten – will certainly big a measure of this as well, but the great programs are those that cross over into Sweet Sixteen territory. This could be the season for Northwestern to make the jump. It’s not an easy goal, but I have little doubt that it’s attainable.
Zach Pereles: Make the NCAA Tournament
Here’s a list of Big Ten teams that have made the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years:
Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue
Here’s a list of Big Ten teams that have won a game in the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years:
So what does that tell me? Winning is hard. Really hard — even for programs with established cultures of success. And success isn’t a straight line. Remember, this time last year, when Northwestern hadn’t ever made the tournament, most of us weren’t expecting a Big Dance until this year. Now of course that team went dancing and brings back a majority of its talent, so that should change the definition of success. But there are the major logistical challenges of playing at Allstate Arena, the simple fact that no basketball season ever goes perfectly (see: Scottie Lindsey getting mono, Vic Law Jr. going through a month-long shooting slump) and, oh yeah, that pesky little reminder that success isn’t a straight line, even when it seems like it should be. If Northwestern can get two NCAA Tournament berths out of a group of guys that came in just vying for one, that’d be a success. And what better way to christen a new era of Northwestern basketball than with a program coming off two straight tourney appearances? Making back-to-back NCAA Tournaments is really impressive for any non-blue blood. Making it twice after not making it for the first 78 years? That’s success to the highest degree. Get to March and see what happens.