Some of my favorite Northwestern basketball moments last season came before opening tip.
As the Wildcats prepared to enter Welsh-Ryan Arena, players past and present recited Jacob Riis’s “The Stonecutter’s Credo” as highlights from the program’s history played over the audio. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for motivational poetry, but something about this poem and how it embodied the ethos and ultimately the narrative of last year’s basketball team generated a surge of emotion in me that few on-court moments could replicate. It was a perfect motto for a perfect season.
Like last year, the Wildcats will run onto the floor at Allstate Arena to “The Stonecutter’s Credo.” Like last year, “Pound the Rock” will characterize this team’s mentality. The Rock split in two last year. What comes next for these Wildcats?
The first thing that comes is the hype. The preseason top-20 ranking, the “We’re a basketball school now,” the No. 5 seed in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology.
Next come the expectations. A return to the NCAA tournament seems to be a must-have for Northwestern fans, as is a top-half finish in the Big Ten.
Ask head coach Chris Collins what comes next, and he will tell you that it’s the Loyola Greyhounds.
“It's time to turn the page,” Collins said at media availability earlier this week. “Everybody starts fresh this Friday. What happened last year was great, it was fun, we enjoyed it, we loved it, but it's over now. And you have to prove your merit with a new season.”
For everything that the 2016-17 season meant to Northwestern, you won’t catch this team talking about last winter unprompted. It was a crucial stepping stone, but an NCAA tournament berth was never the end goal. And for all the discussion of last season, this is a new team, with new expectations for itself.
“I think this year we have a lot to prove,” said Vic Law. “We were right there in the race for the Big Ten [last year] and we let it slip away at the end. We had some inconsistent games down the stretch and we only made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament so I think there is a lot more room for us to grow. We haven’t really accomplished anything yet. We are a program that has made one tournament, so I think we can still build.”
It all begins with consistency in non-conference play. A wonky schedule tests Northwestern right away, as the Wildcats open with five games in the season’s first ten days. A home date with Creighton and a potential matchup with Texas Tech (KenPom ranking: 33rd) loom large, but Collins knows Northwestern will have to bring it every night.
“If you want to be talked about later in the year, you can't stub your toe in November, December,” Collins said.
The new faces — Anthony Gaines, Rapolas Ivanauskas, Aaron Falzon — will be tested right away as the staff tries to hammer out a rotation ahead of conference play, which is less than a month away thanks to a new Big Ten schedule. Competition to fill the roles left by Sanjay Lumpkin and Nate Taphorn brings an intensity to non-conference play.
Ultimately, the veterans will determine how far this team can go. Can Dererk Pardon develop into one of the best big men in the conference? Will Scottie Lindsey continue to step up his offensive repertoire? Can Vic Law defend at an All-Big Ten level while ironing out inconsistencies on the offensive end?
And what can Bryant McIntosh do to cement his legacy as the greatest player in school history? He embodies the program’s transition as well as anyone, struggling through the trying 2014-15 season and breaking out on a national stage as the Wildcats shone late last year. McIntosh has learned from the lows of the Collins era, and now he has the chance to lead Northwestern to new heights, and sustained relevance. He’s still hungry.
“I think if you don't have high expectations for yourself before the media and everybody else, you're not really doing anything,” McIntosh said. “You're not preparing for the season in the right way, and you're not going about things the right way.”
There is a new rock to break down this season. For Collins, the real objectives — “Duke of the Midwest,” staying power, a championship — are still out there.
“Now we have to realize, we gotta start it all over again,” Collins said. “We have our scrapbooks, we have our pictures, we can break them out as we get older and talk about 2017 and what it meant, but right now, it's about a new season [with] new goals and new aspirations and I think we are all excited to get started.”