17-18 Season Preview: Northwestern

My wife is a Cubs fan. She grew up in Chicago, on the North Side, and followed the Cubs her entire life. As a kid, she would walk up to the ticket booth a little after noon with a handful of crumpled dollars and exchange them for a seat in the bleachers. This was back when the rooftops were just rooftops, where you could have a few friends over for a barbecue and catch a couple innings. Of course, that's all different now. Today, the rooftops are big business, no longer the scene of silly high jinks and casual gatherings. The Cubs franchise now owns the rooftops for the most part, and they're integral in an $850 million overhaul of the ballpark and the surrounding area.

But that's what happens, right? Gentrification happens everywhere—why should a ballpark be spared? And the complaints about gentification run from reasonable to stupid, I'll grant. Further, this is just how Things Get Done. And, to the Cubs' credit, they got it done. cubs-world-series
It was a great season and one that no Cubs fan will soon forget. It was a fun team and a dramatic win.

But. Yes, there's a but. The title is clearly the ultimate prize, and there's not much you would trade it for. But...now your team is just one of the other 20 or so franchises that have a World Series trophy. What made the Cubs, The Cubs, is no longer true. They aren't lovable losers. Wrigley Field no longer resembles the romantic backdrop to the on-again, off-again affair of Rob Lowe and Demi Moore in About Last Night. Now, the Cubs are just another large market team with a large market payroll and a large market fanbase. You wouldn't trade the title for all the lazy August games with no postseason implications, with Harry Caray going on about Cracker Jack prizes and making inappropriate remarks about losing baseballs in the sun. Even so, the painful journey is what makes the reward so sweet, and that journey, long and difficult as it was, ought to be respected. And now, it's over.

Northwestern did not win the NCAA Championship last year—the Wildcats won a single game in the NCAA Tournament before falling to Gonzaga—but the school's drought of having never been invited to the Dance came to an end. That's no longer something by which the Northwestern basketball program can identify with. Now, it's just a team with some basketball success that wants a little bit more. Northwestern is Clemson, or Auburn, or Vanderbilt. When Northwestern was on the cusp of a Dance invitation during the past decade, it was news. Going forward, that's no longer the case.

Now, in order to get somebody besides Teddy Greenstein to care about Northwestern hoops, the Wildcats need to do things like win the Big Ten or get to the Sweet Sixteen.

It's not crazy to think one or both of those things will happen as soon as this season.

Now, I'm not saying it will happen, or it's probable. The probable outcome of this season is that Michigan State comfortably wins the Big Ten and Northwestern gets something like a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament. But it's not crazy, either. The Wildcats had a positive conference play efficiency margin for the first time since at least 2002, and well, we can probably assume "ever." From that team returns 80 percent of the minutes, and about 85 percent of the possessions. Sanjay Lumpkin's defense will take some effort to replace, but otherwise there's not much to account for. Isiah Brown was a very high usage freshman who was not terribly efficient, and that probably means he'll either disappear from the rotation in one form or another, or he'll explode as a sophomore.

And make no mistake, there are improvements to be found with this team. It feels a little weird to say, but Northwestern's defense was well ahead of the offense last year. I know Chris Collins is no Bill Carmody, but still, weird.

Specifically, Northwestern struggled with short shot clock (per Synergy, ranking in the 7th percentile among D-I teams with offense generated with 4 or fewer seconds on the shot clock) and isolation situations. These are typically the "player making plays" situations, where it's more about the Jimmies and Joes. Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey were great on spot-ups and cutting off screens, but they did not exhibit the skillset required to score in isolation or even handling the ball in pick-and-roll situations. Tellingly, Bryant McIntosh was the ball handler in P&R and Iso plays in over half of each of those situations. And he wasn't bad at it—pretty average in P&R (54th percentile) and a little below in Iso (38%)—but the Wildcats need someone else.

And the most promising candidate is Brown. Despite not playing nearly as much, Brown took on those roles about as often as Law and Lindsey did, and he was pretty good. Brown's decisionmaking must get better, and he needs to learn what a good shot is, but it's not hard to see the potential. Ideally sophomore Barret Benson improves on a freshman campaign where he was basically a 6-10 cardboard cutout, or else the Wildcats' reliance on Dererk Pardon will once again be overbearing.

Chris Collins did what no other coach in Evanston has ever accomplished, and his reward is that he's raised the bar for his own performance. Simply making the Dance is no longer a historic achievement, it will now be a regular goal, and if he makes it enough—the minimum expectation. It will happen a lot faster than you might think.