It's beginning to occur to me that I keep trashing every team. Even Michigan State, the preseason #1 team in the country had a whiff of yeah, but in its preview. Is this really a reflection of the basketball we can expect this season? Or is it something about me? Do I need to talk to someone?
Well, maybe I do, but I think it's nonetheless true that Northwestern will struggle this year. The team was not very good last year, and loses three starters, including its best offensive and defensive players. I get the sense that Dererk Pardon was never fully appreciated in his time in Evanston, but he was not the typical center you see for the Wildcats. He finished buckets at an extremely high rate, and was a plus defender, and not merely because he could be a rim protector. His helpside defense was legitimately great:
Really, the team's help and recover defense was the lone bright spot last season, and allowed the team to at least be respectable. The offense, for its part, was not respectable in the least. In Big Ten play, the team shot under 44 percent on 2s and under 30 percent on 3s. For good measure, the anti-offensive rebounding campaign is back after a three-year hiatus. Coach Chris Collins saw it fit to award freshman Miller Kopp with 6th-man minutes, and he responded by shooting 36 percent on 2s and 28 percent on 3s. It might seem bewildering that the coach kept putting him in, except when you consider that 6-10 junior Barret Benson managed to convert 28 percent of his 2s. Or that the also tall Pete Nance was scarcely better at 35 percent (worse, Nance fancied himself an outside shooter, going 3 for 16 on 3s). Aaron Falzon, the one-time top-100 prospect who averaged 8 points a game while starting 29 games as a freshmen, ended his disappointing time in Evanston by removing all vestiges of skill outside of stand and shoot (he attempted 7 2-pointers, compared to 60 3s last year). Both he and Benson have transferred.
AJ Turner and Anthony Gaines are likely to lead the attack—Turner is turnover-prone, and Gaines can't shoot—because someone's gotta do it. The Cats are otherwise hoping for otherworldly leaps from Kopp and Nance and surprise contributions from Robbie Beran, Jared Jones, and Daniel Buie.
Look, things are bad. I don't care if he is the "LeBron James of lacrosse," it's probably not a good thing that Northwestern's leading scorer from its exhibition game was Pat Spencer. And while Collins has, on the whole, elevated the level of recruiting from Bill Carmody, we're still talking about a stock of recruits that mostly take a couple of years to develop into Big Ten caliber players.
This means the path forward for Collins is a combination of continuity, development, and identity. On the continuity side, he needs to keep players like Isiah Brown (it's early, and the competition isn't great, but Brown is off to a hot start for Grand Canyon). Development, talent like Falzon cannot regress as he did. Identity...well, what does a Chris Collins team look like? Offensively, they tend to be perimeter-oriented, but it's not clear that this is driven by shooting acumen. Or rather, to the extent it is driven by shooting ability, it might be the inability of the team to create easy two-point chances. Defensively, Collins' teams were strongest on defending 2s, but that success largely overlaps with the presence of the school's all-time blocked shots leader. Now that Pardon is gone, will that skill remain? Offensively, one sees a pattern of never getting to the free throw line and offensive rebounding levels that occasionally dip in the the "alarming" range, but I do not see a blueprint for success to be drawn around those concepts.
Collins' approach seems to be to focus on getting the best talent he can, and building teams around those pieces. That works at a lot of places, but I don't know that it works at Northwestern. You do not see a lot of high major teams that make the Dance on a regular basis on the back of a roster with maybe one four-star recruit, where there isn't some kind of system or identity in place. I do not think one has to adopt a matchup zone or swear to the God of Continuity Ball Screen Offense, but something modest like Pat Chambers' "Kill Two Point Shots" defense. Something to recruit to, to fall back on.
If Collins can weather the storm while improving the core of the program, the season will be a success. If he doesn't, I think we're about to watch a slow end.