After Northwestern’s magical 2017 run, some thought Northwestern could be even better in the ensuing season. The only contributors that had left from the tournament team were Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn, potentially giving the rest of the group time to gel and improve.
As we now know, that sentiment was dead wrong. With the pressure of real expectations on their shoulders, the ‘Cats stumbled through the year on their way to a 15-17 record, followed that up with a 13-19 performance last season, and now it’s feels like it’s back to square one for Chris Collins’ rebuilding project.
But maybe this year, with the team finally mostly removed from potentially having to live up to what happened in 2016-17, the ‘Cats will finally get back to playing aggressively without fear and exceed expectations.
Northwestern, understandably, was picked by almost every national media outlet to finish last in the Big Ten this year. Chris Collins isn’t exactly surprised by the justified lack of faith in his team. As one would expect, he thinks his players will be able to use it to drive them.
“If someone tells you that you can’t do something or somebody tells you you’re not going to win, it should light a little bit of a fire,” Collins said at Thursday’s media availability. “We try to bring our own motivation and have our own goals, but I feel like our guys think we can be better than what other people think we can be.”
A big reason why the ‘Cats have been picked to finish last in the conference is their lack of experience. A.J. Turner and Anthony Gaines are the only upperclassmen expected to be in the rotation, and there are only five players on the team with significant playing experience at the collegiate level.
Collins acknowledged that youthfulness, but he seems ready to embrace it. “We’re going to be committed to developing our young players. They’ve got to be thrown into the fire and figure it out, and I feel like while we’re doing that we can still find a way to win. I know our guys feel that also.”
One could read that statement and believe that Collins is resigned to this being a rebuilding year in which his team racks up painful losses, much as they have over the past two seasons, but this time with an end goal in sight. Instead, though, the vibe in the locker room shows that this team views their inexperience as a relative positive. Even if the ‘Cats finish the season with a record similar to the previous two, they have a chance to refresh Northwestern fans by playing loose and like they’ve got nothing to lose.
“I think it’s kind of a good position to be in, because I don’t want our guys to face any pressure on the backs of expectations. I want them to go out and try to play, learn from each game, get better, compete and see what happens,” Collins finished.
The underdog mentality that the young Wildcats will have should allow them to stay away from overthinking whether or not they are taking the right shots or making the right reads on defense, issues that have plagued them in years past. Instead, this team can trust its basketball instincts, remaining aggressive even when outmatched.
Miller Kopp and A.J. Turner stressed the importance of that aggression when discussing their personal and team goals for the season with the media. The latter told the assembled journalists on Thursday about his main focus: “To be aggressive every game. I feel like if I do that I can have a really good season, and in turn help us have a really great season.”
Kopp, meanwhile, wasn’t afraid to fire away in the exhibition win over Quincy, and we should expect more of that from the sophomore after a hit or miss first year offensively. Echoing Turner, the forward emphasized the importance of increased aggression for the team as a whole: “The emphasis for me is that if I’m open I’m going to shoot it. For everybody on the team, if they’re open, just let it fly.”
The team is certainly excited for the season to start tomorrow, regardless of the tough obstacles they know they will face and the long road they must travel to get back on the right side of the ledger.
“The main thing I want our guys to do is just throw themselves into the game,” said Collins, “We have to be a collection of parts. I really do believe we have a lot of guys who can help.”
No matter their record, expect this team to keep their aggression at the forefront all season long. If you’re like me, even though the preseason optimism, as always, will fade (and probably pretty quickly), that idea should get you excited to watch some 2019 Wildcat basketball.