PROVIDENCE, R.I. – At Northwestern, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future. In some respects, the Wildcats will be better this season than last, although they are young. Beyond this year, there’s a lot of reason to think the program will get its first taste of NCAA Tournament action sooner rather than later.
The Wildcats are off to a 2-0 start, including an impressive 69-56 win at Brown on Monday night. There, they showed both the potential and the room for growth this team has. They have as high a ceiling as they ever have, but also a long way to go to reach it. It’s a sign of how quickly Chris Collins and his staff have made an impact in their second season in Evanston.
For starters, the Wildcats are deeper this year than last, and the staff can already feel the difference. It will be especially noticeable at the offensive end, where last year’s team was mainly carried by three players. Drew Crawford, their leading scorer, is gone, and the other two return, but more Wildcats are scoring threats now.
“I think what we’ve seen these in first two games is we have more guys who can help us in that area,” said Collins.
The reason to temper expectations a bit for this season is that some of those scoring threats are much younger, and thus probably won’t be consistent scoring threats just yet. Six freshmen dot the roster, with two of them starting and two more playing significant minutes off the bench. Three of them have already had a double-digit scoring game now that Scottie Lindsey came off the bench to score 10 points in 13 minutes on Monday night. All three have exactly one in the two games, so already they’re showing the ups and downs that can be expected.
The big keeper among the young players is freshman Vic Law. Long and with a ways to go physically, he has a great motor and looks very much at home in the offense they run. Classmate Bryant McIntosh can play as well, and similarly has a high motor. He’s a skilled combo guard who is already making an impact. Lindsey is athletic and a baby physically, and he has great potential defensively.
McIntosh struggled shooting on Monday night, but managed to hand out five assists. In two games, he has 11 assists and four turnovers. More importantly, he looks like a competitor, and Collins knows there will be a growth process.
“Playing with a freshman point guard, that’s why I’m sweating so much right now,” said Collins. “When you have a freshman point guard, it’s a new level. I love him, and he’s a tremendous player, but he’s still learning what winning at this level is all about. That’s why it’s going to be fun to watch this group grow.”
The Wildcats also have Sanjay Lumpkin, a wing who’s not as athletic as Law or Lindsey but has a great motor as well. He’s a redshirt sophomore, so they have a lot left from him. On Monday, he had 15 points and 12 rebounds and was the constant presence at both ends. With the scoring threats this team has, he can get his shots from just being in the right places rather than having a play run for him.
You can see the room for growth this team has. Besides several players not being there yet physically, they make the kind of mistakes you expect of a team with some youth and limited experience playing together. They don’t always make the best decisions or take the best shots, and you could see plays where timing or communication was off. There is plenty of room to improve defensively. And as noted earlier, none of the freshmen have played two similar games thus far. Law, who appears to have the highest ceiling, played well in the first half on Monday night but was almost invisible for a lot of the second half.
For that matter, the rigors of a college season are still new to the freshmen. Yes, they just went on the road for the first time, but they will only have one more true road game before Big Ten play. They are in the midst of a good test, though, as Collins noted that they start the season with six games in 12 days. That stretch concludes next week in the Cancun Challenge, where they play Miami and either Virginia Tech or Northern Iowa before they get a breather for a week. Then Georgia Tech comes to town for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
All of that means that this season will probably be one of growing pains. It will also includes some highs, though, as the talent is very good and the potential is even better. The buy-in from those who played while Bill Carmody was still the head coach has been great as well, and is very evident watching this team play. The non-conference slate is manageable, which means this team has a chance to both develop and gain confidence along the way.
This season may look like a bridge year of sorts, but the Wildcats should be a tough out and maybe more. An NCAA Tournament bid may remain elusive this season, given the lack of quality win chances in non-conference play and the challenge of Big Ten play for a young team. Carmody and his staff did all they could to get this team on the brink of an NCAA Tournament bid. With the talent being assembled and how they seem to play together, there is reason to think it they will get over that hump before long.