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Mailbag: The snow day manifesto

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It’s cold outside.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Growing up in Maryland, I’m pretty used to snow days. If it snows more than one inch, there’s a pretty good chance that school will be cancelled. In fact, my high school had no school Wednesday because there were about two inches on the ground. Maryland might be the perfect equilibrium of a place that regularly gets snow but is not prepared to deal with it.

Chicago is not like that. When I came to Northwestern, I figured school would never be cancelled. Well, I was wrong.

All it took was temperatures that rivaled Antarctica or Mount Everest, but hey, it happened. For the sixth time ever, Northwestern cancelled classes. This is a real winter. With class cancelled and some free time on my hands, a mailbag made sense. Before getting to your questions, I thought I’d include these winter-themed lists.

Top 5 best things about winter

  1. Peppermint Bark
  2. Balaclavas
  3. That cool feeling you have on your face when you walk inside after being outside
  4. Getting school off sometimes
  5. The first video you see of someone throwing boiling water in the polar vortex

Top 5 worst things about winter

  1. It gets dark early
  2. No football after a certain point
  3. Dry skin
  4. Getting out of bed
  5. Every video you see of someone throwing boiling water in the polar vortex after the first one

There you have it. Without further ado, your questions...

@cheech21097 on Twitter: Is it now time to raise our expectations for NU football to being a consistent contender in the Big 10 compared to being the “feel good story”?

Personally, I don’t think these are necessarily mutually exclusive. Northwestern can simultaneously be a perennial contender while still being a feel good story, at least for the next few years. Eventually, if NU were to rip off a dominant stretch in the West and win a couple Big Ten Championships, then I think the underdog label gets shed. But, for now, one division title in a down year doesn’t instantly elevate Northwestern to Wisconsin’s level. That said, winning division titles should still be an annual expectation, and new facilities, recent success and Pat Fitzgerald’s track record should all fuel those expectations. The reality is, though, given Northwestern’s student population, history and academics, the national media is probably going to refer to NU as an underdog for a long time.

Adam Strigenz on Facebook: Will Northwestern football improve upon last season’s success during Hunter Johnson’s first year? Or, should we expect a regression.

I think the offense will improve. Northwestern talent at skill positions will be comparable to last season, but the many returnees will have another offseason of improvement and training under their belts. The offensive line is a question mark, but Johnson should be a definitive improvement at the game’s most important position. Johnson will almost assuredly be a better deep-ball thrower than Clayton Thorson was, which should open up the passing game and provide more opportunities for explosive plays, which was missing this past season.

@nicklux33 on Twitter: Hunter Johnson 3000 yards, 20 tds?

Clayton Thorson hit this threshold just once in his career (his sophomore campaign in 2016). He hit the 3000 yard mark this past season, but threw just 17 touchdown passes. With that in mind, I think it’s super reasonable to expect Hunter Johnson to get to these numbers. The main concerns I have are whether the offensive line can protect Johnson and whether Mick McCall will be conservative with Johnson early in the season in his first season as the starter. This is a pretty good over/under for both statistics, though. Speaking of Mick McCall...

Tony Fernandez on Twitter: Is there any way that NU Football will part ways with Mick McCall? After another 110th offensive ranking out of 129 teams, isn’t it time for a change? Final question - what blackmail material does McCall have to keep from being fired?

See previous mailbag.

@TerryBevington on Twitter: At cornerback, was Rod Campbell injured all year or just passed over? I remember he had that key PBU in one game and then we never saw him again.

Campbell wasn’t hurt for the entire season, so it seemed like he just got passed over on the depth chart. He did have a massive, and I mean massive, pass break up late in the Iowa game, so he clearly was healthy enough to play, at least for a period of time. He’s dealt with injuries for a lot of his tenure in Evanston, which I’m sure has played a factor in his playing time.

@wanderingthoug5 on Twitter: What do you think the odds are for northwestern to make the tournament, the NIT and no post season play?

NCAA Tournament: 5.6 percent

NIT: 30 percent

No postseason: 64.4 percent

@TotallyREALSpo1 on Twitter: I’d say Northwestern needs to end up at least 21-12 to make the dance what do you think

Right now, Northwestern is is 12-9 overall, with 10 games left. So, theoretically, to end up 21-12, Northwestern would need to be 20-11 (11-9 Big Ten) with one Big Ten Tournament win. If Northwestern goes 8-2 down the stretch, it will probably get into the NCAA Tournament considering six of the 10 remaining games are against top-35 teams in KenPom. But, do you really see Northwestern going 8-2 down the stretch? Have you watched this team play offensively in the last two games???

@MagicArbitRide on Twitter: Was Law guarding Cowan and Gaines guarding Smith a bad idea?

I don’t think so. Law has done a good job guarding Cowan throughout his career, and Gaines has proved capable of guarding bigger players this season. It isn’t ideal to have Gaines guarding a player as big as Jalen Smith, but Gaines is sturdily built, and it’s smart to put Law, the better perimeter defender, on Maryland’s main perimeter threat. The biggest problem in this game for Northwestern came at the other end of the floor.

@ZeiglerJaguar on Twitter: What do you think the center position looks like for Northwestern men’s basketball in 2020? Benson has looked utterly hapless on offense; would Young or Jones be more likely to start?

At this point, Benson is the favorite. He has much more experience than Ryan Young, and it remains to be seen whether Young is actually good. I’ll say this: if Young was good enough to help now, he’d probably be playing. I think in a perfect world Pete Nance bulks up and plays a stretch-5 role, but nothing from this season points to that being a real possibility. Don’t count out freshman Jared Jones either; Chris Collins has played freshman a lot in rebuilding seasons before (and next season is shaping up to be just that), so the 6-foot-9 incoming freshman from Georgia could see a role if Collins doesn’t like what he’s seeing from his returners. Still, my money is on Benson.

Jeff Heinzmann on Facebook: Does men’s hoops have an offensive scheme?

Yes, they do. This probably warrants a film study in the near future, but the crux of the struggles, in my opinion, is that this team does not have a true creator or playmaker. Vic Law is ideally not a primary option, and Dererk Pardon is a primary option, but it’s easier to take him away because he’s dependent upon other players getting him the ball. The offense definitely struggled with Bryant McIntosh, but at least he could shoulder the playmaking duties and create offense sometimes when the motion and sets weren’t generating good looks. With no players on the wing that can consistently beat their defender off the dribble and break down the defense, you see a lot of contested outside shots and forced looks.

David Gaines on Facebook: Will the men’s basketball team lurch and stumble to the end of the season with this no-point-guard offense?

For the reasons outlined above, probably.

Terry Parker on Facebook: Who are some of the recruiting targets for NU basketball? With losing Law and Pardon this could get even uglier!

Um, yeah, it could get even uglier! Familiarize yourself with Robbie Beran, Jared Jones and Daniel Buie, the three 2019 commits, because they might have to play a lot early.

Shawn Offenbacher on Facebook: What are the early projections for any Cats getting drafted?

These are purely guesses, but I’d say they’re both in the fifth-round range and below. I know Thorson has reportedly gotten a third-round grade or higher from many teams, so it’s possible he goes higher, but there are a lot of names that figure to go ahead of him. Hartage seems like a day three pick as well. There will be much more insight on both players after the combine, especially because Thorson couldn’t participate in the Senior Bowl.

Brian Wilson on Facebook: Who are the most likely first-year contributors from the incoming football recruiting class?

The early-enrollees are the surest bets, and both Michael Jansey Jr. (linebacker) and Roderick Heard (cornerback) play positions where there could be some playing time available. Pat Fitzgerald has played true freshmen at linebacker and cornerback before, and both players will have basically an entire college offseason of training before the season starts next fall.

Bryce Kirtz and Genson Hooper-Price, two receivers who are the top two players in the class, could also very well see snaps, though there are a lot of players to jump on the depth chart to see consistent playing time.

Mike Deneen on Facebook: Any forecasts on the upcoming spring sports? LAX, softball, and baseball will start soon.

I’ll throw this one to our resident non-rev expert Noah Coffman:

Lacrosse: The ‘Cats enter the season eighth in the country, hoping to continue the improvement they showed last season after getting back to the NCAA quarterfinals. I personally am less bullish on them thanks to significant losses in the form of Sheila Nesselbush and Shelby Fredericks in attack and Lindsay Darrell and a bunch of others on the back end, but they do return plenty of talent.

Selena Lasota is the best returning scorer in the Big Ten and is a preseason contender for the Tewaaraton Award for national player of the year, and the entire young, speedy midfielding core returns, meaning the transition game should be improved. Kelly Amonte Hiller has another great recruiting class coming in, and with her at the helm it’s tough to ever doubt this group, but they are still looking up at Maryland in the Big Ten and have a ways to go to prove themselves serious national contenders.

Softball: Again, Northwestern is losing a good amount of talent from last year’s impressive group, which made their way to the Big Ten Championship and the final of their regional. Arguably the three most important defensive positions, catcher, center field, and shortstop, will all be filled by new names for the first time in awhile with the graduation of Sammy Nettling, Sabrina Rabin, and Marissa Panko.

But again, coach Kate Drohan has picked up a marvelous freshman class, ranked ninth in the country. Power tandem of Morgan Nelson and Rachel Lewis, who slugged 30 homers and 114 RBIs combined in 2018, should make plenty of noise in the middle of the lineup. Kenna Wilkey and Morgan Newport, both impressive in spurts in their first year as full-time starters last season, should provide pitching stability in the circle. If the highly-touted freshmen mesh well with Northwestern’s returning stars, this team will continue to have plenty of success.

Baseball: There isn’t quite the same level of expectation from Spencer Allen’s group. Though this team doesn’t lose much from last year’s disappointing squad, they’ve got a long way to climb to get back to consistent respectability. After struggling with consistency through much of the season, the pitching staff, especially junior Hank Christie and sophomore Quinn Lavelle, seemed to get some things figured out. The pair, along with expected third starter Ryan Bader, won’t blow anybody away with velocity, but when right, produce enough weak contact to have consistent success in the Big Ten.

On the batting side, there is less promise. Jack Dunn and Alex Erro return up the middle as a solid double play duo and impressive combination high in the lineup, and slugger Willie Bourbon, who started hot in 2018 but finished conference play ice-cold, will return to the middle of the order. But catcher Jack Claeys, who provided seven of the team’s 16 home runs in conference play, is gone. This team needs bats to step up, and will have to improve defensively as well to avoid another dismal record.