After four straight home games to open the season, Northwestern men’s basketball has taken to Florida for the 2019 Fort Myers Tip-off. The four-team early season tournament consists of Northwestern, Pitt, Kansas State and Bradley — with Northwestern matching up against the Braves in Monday’s semifinals.
Here are three things to watch for as the ‘Cats prepare for some tougher competition over the course of these next few days:
Ability away from home
For the first time all season, Northwestern will play a game outside of Welsh-Ryan Arena. I wouldn’t exactly call these games in Fort Myers a road atmosphere (or really any atmosphere at all), but we’ll finally get our first look at the ‘Cats outside of their home gym. For a young and inexperienced team, that could be a serious cause for concern.
With upcoming road games against Boston College and Purdue after the Wildcats complete their trip to Fort Myers, NU will have to get used to life away from Evanston. Regardless of the outcomes they see this week, the Wildcats can certainly learn plenty regarding their team’s ability to handle adversity away from home.
The grind begins
In a similar vein, the team’s fitness will be significantly tested this week, as they will have played three games in five days by the time the tournament is complete. Doing that with a significant trip in the middle will be a challenge for a team with plenty of players that haven’t yet grown accustomed to how grueling Division 1 college basketball can be, and could be important foreshadowing as to struggles or even, perhaps, successes deep into Big Ten play, when many Chris Collins-coached teams have struggled.
AJ Turner time?
The senior forward’s season has gotten off to a rocky start, to say the least. After entering this 2019-20 campaign as the team’s leading returning scorer, Turner has made just five field goals through four games, and he’s seeing under 20 minutes per game. The BC transfer’s strong finish to the 2018-19 season has not carried over in the slightest, and his once promising three-point shooting has hit a wall: he’s off to an 0-for-9 start from behind the arc.
This early-season tournament could serve as a chance for Turner to rebuild some confidence with Big Ten play just around the corner. After the Norfolk State win last Friday, Collins emphasized that this team will be counting on the senior and his experience as his young team travels away from home. Expect Turner to see more playing time this week with Collins forced to rotate more frequently with a multi-game stretch over a short timespan.
Playing for a title
This tournament represents Northwestern’s only legit chance of winning some kind of championship this year. Sure, it’s only the Fort Myers Tip-Off, but stringing together back-to-back strong performances and walking away with a title would be nothing short of a massive confidence boost for a young team desperately in need of one.
Throughout Collins’ tenure at NU, the Wildcats have yet to win one of the many early season tournaments they’ve participated in, and this has to be one of the best opportunities they’ve had. If the team can get a win against a tough, but beatable Bradley team on Monday, a midweek championship game against a formidable high-major opponent in Kansas State/Pitt could give the Wildcats some serious momentum after a far from impressive start to the season.