ROSEMONT, Ill. — Asked whether he knows where his team is picked to finish in the Big Ten, Chris Collins cracks a soft smile.
“People send it to me,” Collins says. “It’s all good.”
A year removed from a preseason top 25 ranking and being the darling of the conference, things are very different at this year’s Big Ten Media Day. Picked No. 12 in the league by an official media poll and No. 13 by others, the Wildcats are more afterthought than upstart this year.
“We see it, we acknowledge it. We don’t pay much mind to it,” senior captain Dererk Pardon said.
Northwestern enters 2018-2019 as underdogs despite an infusion of new talent and a new arena to boot. Collins brings in a highly-touted four-man recruiting class, and now has two long, athletic transfers in the fold. His team is significantly different from the previous ones he’s coached in Evanston, an interesting blend of old and new. With so many new players, Collins said re-establishing habits, standards and camaraderie — what he calls “culture” — was needed.
“We’ve worked really hard for five years to get a foundation of ‘This is what Northwestern basketball stands on, this is how we practice, this is how we treat each other as teammates, this is how we coach.’ ... I think we lost sight of our culture a little bit.”
Last season, Collins said he took a veteran roster for granted and didn’t hammer down defensive principles as he should’ve in the preseason. This season, he has a new-look roster, and he’s building those habits from the ground up. In many ways, Northwestern has the look of a new-age basketball team. Collins has stockpiled versatile, skilled players who can play and guard multiple positions. He’s added shooting to a roster that desperately needed it.
But, there are major questions too, the biggest being at point guard. After Bryant McIntosh’s graduation, Northwestern has two point guards, senior Jordan Ash and freshman Ryan Greer, but neither really projects as a starter this season. What’s more likely is an unconventional starting lineup with no true point guard: Anthony Gaines, A.J. Turner, Ryan Taylor, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon. Collins referenced this lineup at media day (he didn’t say it would be the starting five), and said it will change how Northwestern plays. Here’s what he said, with some more tidbits from media day.
- Offensively, expect fewer pick-and-rolls, more motion, more cutting and more off-ball action. A combination of Gaines, Turner, Law and Taylor would probably bring the ball up to initiate what Pardon called a “continuity offense.” With no ball-dominant player like McIntosh, the offense should be more diverse, but turnovers could happen. Collins said multiple times Thursday that taking care of the ball would determine the offense’s success, and that makes sense. Taylor is an elite shooter, and really good playing off the ball. Turner is also a good shooter. Pardon was efficient last season when given the ball on the block, which should become a bigger part of the offense this season. Gaines gets in the lane and draws fouls. But, giving away possessions would offset some of that.
- Defensively, Northwestern should be better than last season. Law is an elite wing defender, and Gaines is above-average, at the least. Pardon’s one of the better defensive bigs in the conference. Taylor is probably an upgrade over McIntosh, and Turner has length, at the very least. Collins said his team can switch 1-4, and will be able to play much more man-to-man than it played last season, when it became a primarily zone team. A side note on Law: he had surgery this offseason to improve his lung capacity, which has increased his stamina and has allowed him to keep weight on easier. He’s gained 10-12 pounds this offseason in muscle.
- Northwestern hasn’t moved into Welsh-Ryan Arena yet, and the players haven’t seen it. One person familiar with the arena called it “unrecognizable” from pre-renovation Welsh-Ryan. Collins said expects the team to move in the week after next.
- Collins gushed over Pete Nance’s upside, saying he’s a year or two away from being physically ready to dominate. Still, Nance is superbly skilled as a passer and a shooter, which will translate early. On offense, Nance gives NU a legitimate pick-and-pop threat, and he could team with Pardon to form a frontcourt that would protect the rim at a high level and cover a lot of ground. Collins said Nance probably has more upside than any player Northwestern’s ever had. Nance bulked up from 200 pounds to 220 pounds this summer, and has more to go. Collins mentioned 240 pounds as an eventual target weight for Nance.
- Miller Kopp, the freshman most ready to contribute physically, is another long wing. At 6-foot-6, Kopp can post up smaller players, but also shoot the ball from deep. Here’s what Collins said about Kopp:
“Hard nosed, man. He’s a competitive dude. His body is Big Ten ready. He’s a big wing. He’s 6-6, 220 pounds. He’s ultra-competitive. Imagine living in a house with four Division I athletes as brothers. His older brother’s an offensive lineman at Vanderbilt, he’s second, his brother below him’s gonna be a Division I basketball player and his sophomore-aged brother’s gonna be a Division I athlete in either football or basketball. That’s a competitive household, so he mixes it up, he’s got a competitive nastiness that I really like. But he can make shots. He’s a big wing who can play inside-out. He can post smaller guys, he can make shots from the perimeter. He’s a big scorer, scorer’s mentality in high school.”
This season’s Northwestern has a lot of talented pieces, but the question, as it always is in basketball, is how they fit together. The roster is structurally different than years past, and that will dictate a different style of play.
For the people who watched Northwestern last season, that’s a good thing.