CHICAGO — Minutes after Northwestern’s season ended with an overtime loss to Illinois, Northwestern’s locker room was emotional. Many players were crying. During the postgame media availability in the locker room, Anthony Gaines sat with a towel over his head. For a second straight year, the season had ended with a disappointing loss in its first Big Ten Tournament game.
The emotion, in the eyes of head coach Chris Collins, shows how much the players care. “To see them share that emotion with each other, you know, and cry those tears, that’s when you know that you have the right kind of guys in terms of character.” Despite a 10-game losing streak and plenty of agonizing losses, the Wildcats never gave up.
But, on its face, togetherness and effort do not fulfill the barometers of success the program needs to hit. Northwestern doesn’t have a mentality problem, it has a players problem. The roster construction is unbalanced, player development has gone awry and too many recruits haven’t panned out.
Collins quickly indicated his dissatisfaction.
“Where we are right now is not acceptable for where I want to be as a program,” Collins said. “I don’t like where we’re at right now, and it’s not about the guys, but we’re going to get to work. We’re going to get to work, and we’re going to get Northwestern guys wearing those uniforms, and we’ve done it before, and we’re going to do it again. I promise you that. We’re going to do it again. Hopefully it will be better than it was before.”
The path back to postseason relevance is an arduous one, however. Vic Law and Dererk Pardon are now gone, leaving major scoring and leaderships gaps. Ryan Taylor leaves the backcourt, and Aaron Falzon could be on the way out, too. If Falzon leaves, and Jordan Ash doesn’t seek a medical redshirt (which could happen), Northwestern will have just seven players returning, none of which have consistently contributed outside of Anthony Gaines. A.J. Turner and Miller Kopp have come on down the stretch this season, which is encouraging, but they will need to take on elevated roles in 2019-2020.
Three freshmen enter the fold, but if this season is any indication, relying on first-years is a tricky proposition. With that in mind, Collins will have to attack the grad transfer market hard for a second-straight season. I sense that Collins knows he can’t sustain a program through transfers, but he doesn’t really have another option, given that his 2019 recruiting class has three players and the 2016 and 2017 classes account for just three total players (counting A.J. Turner).
Most importantly, Northwestern has to sort out its point guard situation. There were more issues than just the lack of a point guard this season, but it was apparent that not having a true facilitator and playmaker hindered Vic Law and others. Daniel Buie will add some depth, and Ryan Greer looked decent at times, but it doesn’t seem like either would be a starting-caliber player next season on a competitive team.
In reality, Northwestern is not set up to compete next season, mostly due to the mismanaged roster construction and aforementioned recruiting whiffs. What Northwestern really needs most urgently, then, is for its player development to show signs of life, specifically from the young players that Collins called “the next wave of [the] program.”
Miller Kopp looked increasingly comfortable as a scorer this past season, which bodes well for an increased offensive load, but he turns the ball over and has defensive lapses. Pete Nance was never going to really get going after getting mono during the season. He didn’t really get going before that either, though. Strength is obviously an important area of potential growth for Nance, but confidence and decision-making are too. On Tuesday night, Nance (6-foot-10, 210 pounds) futilely tried to post up Illinois guard Tyler Underwood (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) before sheepishly passing the ball back out. He probably needs to become more of a threat on the offensive glass and add a move or two going toward the rim for Northwestern’s frontcourt to function without Pardon. Turner projects as the most natural lead scorer next season, though his shooting has to improve. With a point guard to feed him, it should.
All of that said, it’s tough to find programs in the conference with worse outlooks than Northwestern does for next season given the improved state of the Big Ten. To get out of the Big Ten’s cellar, the program will need to improve from within and convince some recruits to buy into a program that has lost a lot in the past two season. In some ways, the situation resembles the one Collins faced when he took the Northwestern job. New facilities and a Tournament run should make it easier for Collins this time around, but the fact that this is a conversation is telling about how the program has (or hasn’t) grown.