With its 2016-2017 campaign in the books, Northwestern will begin to focus on a 2017-2018 campaign that holds a ton of promise. The Wildcats return 12 of the 14 players from this year’s Round of 32 roster, and Chris Collins will have two more players entering the rotation battle with forwards Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas returning from injury. Additionally, guard Anthony Gaines will be joining the program as the lone class of 2017 recruit. Of course, the Wildcats’ offseason is still very young, and there is not only the possibility of more recruits — Mark Smith is the main name right now — or graduate transfers, but the vast improvement of players during this offseason that could shake up the depth.
That leaves Collins with a bevy of options. Here are the main possibilities at this point.
Starting Five: Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Aaron Falzon, Vic Law Jr., Dererk Pardon
If I had to plug in five people today to start definitively, this is the most likely scenario given that Falzon started as a true freshman. This lineup has some obvious plus sides, the most major one being that four of the five starters are true offensive weapons. McIntosh and Lindsey are both dangerous individual scorers; Falzon is a true knockdown shooter on catch-and-shoot situations; and Law is a guy you could either post up or have as another catch-and-shoot option. Even Pardon showed the ability this year to score efficiently in the post, though he’d likely be the last option in this offense.
There are some drawbacks to this lineup though, especially on the defensive end, where the team will feel Lumpkin’s absence most. The Wildcats wouldn’t really have a legitimate second post defender; Law Jr. usually takes the other team’s best perimeter scorer, Lindsey gets the second perimeter option and McIntosh usually takes a third guard. That could leave Falzon to guard a variety of different characters, much like Lumpkin did this year, and that would mean Falzon would have to learn not only to guard skilled guards and forwards, but also double down on big men and rotate out to shooters. At 6-foot-8 and over 210 pounds, Falzon should have the size to do so — he’s two inches taller than Lumpkin in fact — but what made Lumpkin so good was his instincts, his strength and his versatility, things we haven’t yet seen out of Falzon on the defensive end.
Of course, we haven’t seen anything out of Falzon on either end in an entire year. He played in just three games before being shut down for the season after knee surgery. If he can take a leap forward defensively and diversify his game to become more than just a shooter offensively, this is a very, very strong lineup on both ends.
Off the bench: This is really an unknown quantity at this point, especially because there’s a strong chance Northwestern adds at least one more player before the 2017-2018 season tips off. As the roster stands now, though, the first cycle of substitutions could include Isiah Brown or Jordan Ash for either McIntosh or Lindsey at the guard spot. If Brown/Ash comes for Lindsey, Lindsey would very likely come back in for McIntosh a few minutes later and vice versa. Collins showed the willingness to play two point guards at once several times this season. And this isn’t even to mention Anthony Gaines, who will be joining the team this summer as a true freshman.
The wing positions are where there’s the most attrition, because Taphorn and Lumpkin both played there. Essentially Law Jr., Falzon and Ivanauskas are the wings, though if Collins wants to go somewhat smaller, he could plug Lindsey in at the three alongside two guards. Ivanauskas is a bit of an unknown quantity considering he missed his entire freshman season with a shoulder injury. He provides great length at 6-foot-9, and he was a standout rebounder at the high school level. If he can come in and contribute right away as a defender and a rebounder, Ivanauskas could see substantial minutes.
Down low, Barret Benson could be the first man off the bench, but so, too could Gavin Skelly. There’s a long way to go between now and November. One thing that’s for certain, though, is that Pardon and Benson will not play together; both are traditional back-to-the-basket big men. But Collins could deploy a lineup with either Skelly and Pardon or Skelly and Benson, as Skelly can stretch the floor a bit more.
Starting Five: Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Rapolas Ivanauskas, Vic Law Jr., Dererk Pardon
In this scenario, Falzon would function as more of a three-point specialist off the bench, much like Taphorn did this season. As mentioned earlier, Ivanauskas is the only other true wing, and given his length and skill set, he could slide in nicely as a stretch four who can also rebound. Of course a lot depends on how he recovers and progresses following his shoulder surgery, but he has the physical tools and the promise to step in as a starter, be a valuable contributor and fulfill a very specific role, much like Lumpkin did, albeit with a little bit more offensive upside.
Off the bench: At guard, Collins still has the options of Brown, Ash and Gaines, all of whom will battle for minutes throughout the offseason and in all likelihood into the regular season as well.
On the wing, though, things get a bit more interesting. Collins loves Skelly’s energy coming off the pine, so it still seems unlikely that he’ll start in any lineup, but if Benson progresses as a true backup big man behind Pardon, the Wildcats could go for significant stretches with Skelly alongside Benson/Pardon as well as Law Jr., who is also an excellent rebounder. So Skelly could end up as a four or a five, with a lot of that depending on how Ivanauskas and Benson progress. Falzon’s return as a possible stretch four doesn’t help Skelly’s prospects for extended minutes at the four unless it’s against a team with a big front line that rebounds really well. One example from this season would be against Rutgers — one of the nation’s premier offensive rebounding teams — when Skelly and Pardon played extended minutes together.
Starting Five: Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, UNKNOWN, Vic Law Jr., Dererk Pardon
Off the bench: UNKNOWN
This is the most realistic lineup right now, and there are a few reasons for this. As mentioned before, this is almost certainly not the roster Northwestern will have a couple of months from now. Collins will hit the recruiting trail looking to lock up another signature to the 2017 class. He’ll also be in the market for a graduate transfer who can play right away, and there will be plenty of options, as there are seemingly every year. Second, even if this is the roster Northwestern enters next season with, there is a ton of opportunity for players to move up in the rotation with a strong offseason. Additionally, the injury bug has bit Northwestern the past couple of seasons, so health will be a key factor as well.
Overall, Chris Collins has a ton of talent — more than he’s ever had in Evanston — and that will give him a lot of versatility with how he divides up minutes. His first recruiting class is headed into its fourth season at Northwestern, and there is ample talent behind that group. The prospects for next season, at least from a personnel standpoint, are very exciting.