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Wildcat Shootaround: Will Northwestern football or basketball have the more successful 2017-18 season?

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Both teams are full of potential, but our writers have to pick one.

Chicago Tribune

There has never been a better time to be a fan of Northwestern football and basketball. Ever. Both revenue sports are in the midst of their most successful eras of all time and only seem to be getting better. They are led by a pair of talented coaches and overseen by an ambitious athletic director whose prioritization of improving athletic facilities should continue to help those coaches recruit in the upcoming years. But back to the present. We are coming off of a 2016-17 academic year in which Pat Fitzgerald led his team to a thrilling bowl victory and Chris Collins broke through with the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance, and there are good reasons to be even more excited about next season for both teams. The two biggest stars of this golden era of Northwestern sports, Justin Jackson and Bryant McIntosh, are back for their senior seasons and surrounded by returning talent.

Because it’s the spring and we can’t help ourselves, we proposed a simple question: which team will be more successful in 2017-18? Obviously, success is a tough and arbitrary thing to determine between two sports with very different postseason formats, but that’s what makes this fun. This question isn’t simply which team we think will be better on paper, although that’s a big part of it. These are our best guesses at which team will have the better year, so other factors like outside pressures, the strength of their respective conferences, and even where they play their home games can be weighed in if one wants. Without further ado, here’s what our staff thinks.

Will Ragatz: Football

After soundly winning this made-up competition with a 10-win season in 2015, Northwestern football regressed and a certain historic basketball team swooped in a grabbed the title. Even though Collins, McIntosh and co. will almost certainly be an improved team next season, there a couple reasons why I think football will take back the crown. For starters, I’m really high on Fitzgerald’s team heading into this season.

On offense, I think Clayton Thorson makes another jump, Justin Jackson and John Moten IV prove to be the best backfield tandem in the conference and Flynn Nagel becomes a star. Defensively, the secondary will have great depth and there’s plenty of talent on the line, too. I optimistically think the offensive line will become more consistent and that this team will compete for a Big Ten West title and New Year’s Six bowl. On the basketball side, I think the team could have a hard time following up the greatest season in program history. Will they make the tournament again? I think so. Will they get the double-bye and/or Sweet Sixteen run needed to defeat a great football season? I’m not so sure.

Martin Oppegaard: Basketball

The loss of Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn is significant, but Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas will be big additions to a team that lacked depth. Combine that with another year for this historic team to develop, and I think you have a group more than capable of making that aforementioned Sweet Sixteen run. Northwestern ended its season with a 53-point second half against a Final Four team that is favored to advance to the National Championship game. Gonzaga allowed less than 53 points in a game seven times this season. Not only will the Wildcats improve next season, but Chris Collins should be able to reap the rewards of the 2016-17 season. Talented guard Anthony Gaines is the lone commitment of the 2017 recruiting class, and Collins has his eyes set on Illinois’ Mr. Basketball, Mark Smith. If Collins can land Smith or another solid recruit (or grad transfer), basketball will have the more successful 2017-18 season.

Rob Schaefer: Basketball

Chris Collins and co. are riding a frothing wave of momentum coming off the best season in program history. The team is returning 12 of 14 players and, as Martin said, getting Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas back from injury will go a long way for a team that was short on bodies for much of the season. Collins has shown a remarkable ability to cultivate and develop talent in his four years at Northwestern, so expect jumps from guys like Vic Law, Dererk Pardon and Isiah Brown after a year of (NCAA tournament) experience.

The team’s two best players, Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey, are also returning, and after tasting postseason success in 2017, it’s easy to envision them pushing this team to a comparably successful 2017-18 campaign. There’s reason for optimism for football, as well, but a lot more uncertainty. A banged up secondary has a chance to start over fresh and Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson are back and ready to spearhead an offense that showed definitive signs of improvement last year. Thorson will have to show the ability, though, to perform consistently without his safety blanket, Austin Carr. The departures of Anthony Walker and Ifeadi Odenigbo leave a slew of question marks in the front seven, and while Will is optimistic about the offensive line improving this year, I’ll believe it when I see it. Don’t get me wrong, I can see both of these teams performing at or exceeding expectation, but my money’s on basketball having the better season.

Josh Burton: Basketball

Maybe the only aspect of the basketball program that will be worse next season is the arena situation. Losing Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn is not insignificant, but this Northwestern team is more-than-equipped to make up for their absences. With Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas coming back from season-long injuries — as well as Anthony Gaines entering the mix — the Wildcats will still have a lot of depth as they look to build off a historic season.

Also, remember that both Scottie Lindsey and Dererk Pardon missed big chunks of last season, and Northwestern was able to weather the storm even with an extremely tightened rotation at points. Injuries can still factor into the equation for the 2017-18 campaign, but the odds that so many key guys will be out for extended periods of time are pretty slim.

The football team is also coming off the high of a saved season and bowl win, but I think we already know what the ceiling of that team is. We know how good Justin Jackson is, we know the defense will be pretty good and we know that the wide receiving corps — and thus passing game — will be pretty spotty. So, I just don’t see football surprising us too much in terms of wins, while the sky is the limit for a basketball team that was (possibly) a missed call and a few minutes of strong play from making the Sweet Sixteen.

Caleb Friedman: Basketball

Both teams have a lot of talent coming back next season, but I think the basketball team loses less. Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn were certainly important in the roles they played, but they only accounted for 20 percent of the team’s minutes and 14.7 percent of the team’s points. The return of Aaron Falzon should help to ease the loss of Taphorn, and the combination of Gavin Skelly, Rapolas Ivanauskas and Falzon should help fill Lumpkin’s departure. If any one player makes any sort of Scottie-Lindsey-esque jump next season, the team could be scary with B-Mac, Vic Law Jr., Dererk Pardon and Lindsey back. On the football side of things, there are more unknowns. With Keith Watkins II coming back from injury and Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Quiero and Montre Hartage returning in the secondary, the defense should be good, but it will still have to replace Anthony Walker Jr., which won’t be easy. The offensive line was bad last season, and while it will probably be better next season, it probably won’t be one of the best lines in the conference. And while Flynn Nagel looks he can, at least to some degree, replace Austin Carr, we still don’t know for sure how Carr being gone will impact the passing game. With more production coming back next season, the basketball team will have a more successful 2017-2018.

Chris Grismer: Basketball

There are a couple parallels between the two squads. Both are coming off winning seasons and are losing key pieces. Fitzgerald, Thorson and Jackson ought to carry Northwestern to its third consecutive bowl appearance. Losing Walker Jr. and Carr will hurt, though. With continued improvement from Thorson and a deep secondary, the Wildcats should compete for the Big Ten West title.

Collins, McIntosh and Law will look to secure another berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats are returning seven of their nine rotation players from last year and will welcome back Falzon, who started 29 games as a freshman. In Year Five of the Collins era, Northwestern should be one of the top teams in the conference. When the dust settles, the basketball team’s season will appear more impressive because of its potential ceiling. It’s hard to see the football team making a New Year’s Six bowl, whereas it wouldn’t be that surprising to see its hardwood counterpart making the Sweet Sixteen.

Zach Wingrove: Basketball

I think both teams have the potential to put together historic seasons (by Northwestern standards) in their respective sports. The football team is coming off two consecutive bowl appearances and, barring any drastic injuries, should be in good position to punch a third consecutive trip in 2017 — which would be just the second time in program history the team has gone to three consecutive bowls and potentially the team’s eighth bowl appearance in ten years, which speaks to the job Pat Fitzgerald has done. Justin Jackson is back along with most of the offensive line, not to mention Clayton Thorson now has two years of experience under his belt. The defense loses Anthony Walker Jr. but returns one of its leaders, Godwin Igwebuike, and gets Keith Watkins II back to bolster the secondary. All of this gives the team a legitimate chance to win a Big Ten West title this season.

With that being said I still have to go with the basketball team for all the reasons listed above. Collins’ squad returns nearly every key contributor on offense and gets Aaron Falzon back, who was extremely effective by freshman standards in 2015-2016 and will only become more deadly when he’s the fourth scoring option on the floor next year. I think both Barret Benson and Isiah Brown will make significant jumps this off season, allowing them to play more meaningful minutes next year, and it will also be very exciting to see what Rapolas Ivanauskas can bring to the table. All of this puts the team in position to compete for a Big Ten title and possibly go further than the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament, and because of that ceiling, it has to be the basketball team.

Tristan Jung: Football

  1. The football schedule is not that tough. I could see Northwestern easily going 6-2 to start the season, barring an Illinois State-level disaster. A very competitive 8-4 season and nearing a Big Ten West title is in the cards.
  2. Meanwhile, 2016-17 is surely the nadir of the Big Ten’s fortunes in basketball. Things must get better. Illinois and Indiana have made two fantastic hires in Brad Underwood and Archie Miller, respectively. Those Big Ten powerhouses will surely be better, along with solid Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan State teams that can all match up toe-to-toe with Northwestern. Heck, even Rutgers is getting better.
  3. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Northwestern basketball will be much worse. They will probably be even better. However, if they still finish fourth, fifth or sixth in the Big Ten, there’s no guarantee they will get an easy matchup in the NCAA Tournament, and it would still be slightly trumped by a Big Ten West title or strong 9-3 season that puts football in the top three. I think that the football team could at least repeat its most recent Outback Bowl performance, and a bowl win there would slightly edge out even a fourth-placed Big Ten finish.
  4. Again, this is a slightly ridiculous question, as success in both sports is defined completely differently. But it’s fun! Go ‘Cats!