Is Northwestern ready for elevated expectations?
- After notching the first NCAA tournament berth in program history, Northwestern will enter the 2017-18 season with raised expectations. Can the Wildcats deliver?
The college basketball off-season is long and largely lacking in major news developments. Programs are still finalizing their 2017 recruiting classes and sorting out which of their players will return for another season or jump to the professional ranks. We’ve got a long way to go until Midnight Madness. To help pass the time, SI.com is asking and answering three key questions about each of the teams in our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Here’s No. 22, Northwestern.
1. Is this team ready for expectations?
Northwestern basketball was one of the best stories in the country last year, earning its first ever trip to the NCAA tournament after falling short 78 seasons in a row. The Wildcats won a game and pushed eventual national runner-up Gonzaga to the brink before bowing out in the second round. Despite the second-round exit, last year was an unmitigated (and unprecedented) success for Northwestern. Should it leave the tournament in the same round this season, that would not be the case. The Wildcats return most of last year’s core, including Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law, Scottie Lindsay and Dererk Pardon. They’ll be expected to compete for the Big Ten championship, and will be favored to finish among the conference’s top four. Last year was just one of many in which Northwestern seemed to have a chance to break its ignominious tournament drought. Once it did indeed make the Big Dance, it was playing with house money. This year, many will expect the Wildcats to get to the program’s first ever Sweet 16. They’ll have to prove early on that they can handle that pressure.
2. Is there enough three-point shooting in Evanston?
The Wildcats ranked 59th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 206th in effective field goal percentage last season, according to kenpom.com, largely because of the lack of any serious threats from distance. The best three-point shooter by percentage was Nathan Taphorn at 47%, but he attempted just 83 threes and was a senior last year. Leading scorers Lindsay, McIntosh and Law can all get to the rack, but all three do nearly all their damage inside the arc. We’ve seen the three-point shot become a real weapon in the college game, with its importance seeming to grow with each passing season. As the memory of last season fades and attention turns to the season on the horizon, a dearth of three-point shooting will be the biggest issue for head coach Chris Collins. Northwestern doesn’t have the size and interior strength to offset bad three-point shooting the way North Carolina did last year. Whether it’s a combination of Lindsay, McIntosh and Law improving from distance, or someone else stepping up, the Wildcats will need to find some real three-point threats before the 2017-18 season tips off.
3. Will the Wildcats’ temporary home have an adverse effect on the team’s play?
Northwestern typically plays its home games right on campus at Welsh-Ryan Arena, a building that opened in 1952. The arena was renovated in 1983 but still gives off the vibe of a high school gym. As such, the university is pouring in $110 million to modernize it, with work beginning immediately after the Wildcats played their home final game last season. The renovation will not be done until after the 2017-18 basketball season concludes, which means the Wildcats will spend the most anticipated season in program history elsewhere. Specifically, they’ll be playing in the Allstate Arena, which is about 15 miles from Northwestern’s campus and had been DePaul’s home since 1980 (coincidentally, the Blue Demons are vacating the building for a new arena in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood this season). There’s a big difference between playing home games on your campus and taking a 15-mile bus ride to your home games, one that can be complicated by traffic given Allstate Arena’s proximity to O’Hare International Airport. It could also be a pain for students to attend, and it won’t be as easy a trip for alumni who live in Chicago and the city’s northern suburbs. The team should, of course, be able to overcome these obstacles, and you can bet that Collins will get his guys used to the new routine long before the season starts. Still, in a sport that values homecourt advantage as much as college basketball does, this temporary change should not be overlooked.