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Northwestern basketball’s biggest question marks entering the 2017-18 season

These three things will determine how great this team can be.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Gonzaga vs Northwestern Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

On the eve of Northwestern men’s basketball’s season opener against Loyola (MD), we looked at the biggest question marks surrounding the 2017-18 season.

1. Who will play the 4 and how badly will NU miss Sanjay Lumpkin?

Last season, Lumpkin averaged 6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists, while shooting 56 percent from the field in his 28 minutes per game. But that doesn’t tell the whole story; Lumpkin’s defense, leadership and competitive fire sparked the Wildcats on numerous occasions. Overall, Lumpkin was a very balanced and useful player who contributed in many areas throughout his career at Northwestern. He often used defense to create offense as well.

Potential replacements in the starting lineup include redshirt freshman Rapolas Ivanauskas, redshirt sophomore Aaron Falzon and senior Gavin Skelly. Due to Ivanauskas missing last season with a shoulder injury, it isn’t clear to what extent he would be able to mimic Lumpkin’s successes at the college level. However, his 6-foot-9 frame and versatility could prove useful and give him an edge.

Falzon also missed last season, but was impressive as a true freshman. At 6-foot-8, Falzon had no problem shooting from outside, hitting 63 three-point shots at a 35 percent clip, with 78 percent of his field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc. Although he lacks the physicality and versatility of Lumpkin, Falzon is a much better shooter who can prove valuable floor spacing and offense. He’s also a major weapon in transition.

Skelly is the only one of the three candidates who played last season, logging 17.7 minutes per game. The 6-foot-8 senior put up averages of 5.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists. Skelly brought valuable energy off the bench but struggled with his long-range jumper, hitting just 30 percent of his threes. He’s a more talented offensive player than Lumpkin was but nowhere near the defender.

Whoever starts out of those three — our guess is Falzon — will hopefully have improved defensively, but the rest of the starting lineup will have to step up to try and make up for the loss of Lumpkin’s defense and leadership.

2. Will Dererk Pardon have a bigger scoring presence?

Last season, Pardon put up impressive numbers across the board. However, he still struggled greatly with his mid-range shots and free throws. He was relied on a lot last year, playing an average of 30.8 minutes per game. The 6-foot-8 center struggled offensively outside of putbacks and close-range finishes. 30 percent of his shot attempts came from two-point jumpers last year, but he only knocked down 42 percent. His averages from the free throw line weren’t impressive either, with the lowest percentage on the team at 54 percent from the line and 44 percent in conference play.

Pardon is still a major asset in most other areas, as he averaged 8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game last season. He’s a force at the rim on both ends.

For Pardon to be a major contributor on offense, though, he’ll need to expand his game. There’s been plenty of talk this offseason about increasing his role on that end, but it remains to be seen if he’s up for the job.

3. How will playing at Allstate Arena affect this team?

Last season, especially down the stretch, Northwestern repeatedly packed sellout crowds into the cozy Welsh-Ryan Arena. The student section was overflowing and frantic, and the Cats went 14-4 at home. That record is inflated by playing non-conference cupcakes at home, but Northwestern was still 7-4 against Power 6 opponents at Welsh-Ryan compared to 5-5 on the road.

This year, the Wildcats will have to adjust to playing in a much larger arena in front of smaller crowds. NU went 5-3 in neutral sites a year ago, which is a good sign, but it’s fair to wonder if losing last year’s home-court advantage will make a difference. Northwestern will also have to play the most compressed regular season in Big Ten history due to the conference tournament being held in Madison Square Garden (which still makes no sense).

Although none of these questions have easy answers, the expectations are still sky-high for this team, particularly with the returns of Ivanauskas and Falzon as well as the addition of freshman Anthony Gaines. On top of that, NU has four returning starters – including all top five scorers – warranting even bigger goals than last season.

The answers will start to become apparent tomorrow night.