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Is This the Year for Northwestern?

Scottie Lindsey
Just a few months ago, the Chicago Cubs ended a century-long streak of zero World Series titles,
showing that even the most invincible curse can be broken. Now, their neighbors in Evanston are trying to do something very similar.  Never in their 113-year history has Northwestern basketball made the NCAA Tournament. Yet, we are now into February, and the Wildcats have jumped to an 18-5 overall record, and a 7-3 mark in the Big Ten. It has been their best start in their history, and one that is sure to be remembered as a massive success, no matter the finish. But, the big question remains: can they actually do it? Is this really the year they finally qualify for the "Big Dance"?

Now in his fourth year, Chris Collins has done a marvelous job with the Wildcats. The son of NBA coaching legend Doug Collins, Chris inherited a roster that had some talent, but some serious holes. Former head coach Bill Carmody had shown you could win at Northwestern, making four NIT appearances in his tenure, ranging from 2000-2013. However, even with the talent level rising, Northwestern never made the Tournament under his watch. This team still lacked experience, leadership and upside to survive the rugged Big Ten. All of those things appear to be present on the 2017 squad. Junior Bryant McIntosh wasn't a highly touted recruit, but has led the offense to new heights, with averages of 13.2 PPG, 5.6 APG and 91% from the free throw line. Dynamic wings Scottie Lindsey (leading scorer with 15.4 PPG) and Vic Law have given the offense plenty of explosiveness and diversity. Rock-solid Sanjay Lumpkin isn't an elite scorer but rebounds the ball extremely well and gives the team energy. And, despite some losses down low, this team still has plenty of potential to be a great low-post team, which is so critical in such a physical conference. Overall, the lineup packs a fair bit of punch, which is something you couldn't always say about Northwestern. When McIntosh is playing smart and controlled, and Law and Lindsey are knocking down shots from the perimeter to open things up, this is a team that can score and play with anybody in the country.

That isn't to say Northwestern does not have any flaws, because they certainly do. First off, for all the good things the backcourt does, it is extremely turnover prone. McIntosh is an elite-level playmaker, but makes a lot of dumb decisions trying to create those plays, and the offense as a whole doesn't handle pressure very well. Something to also take note of is their lack of depth. It is very hard to find any college basketball team with veterans and studs throughout their lineups, but the Wildcats is thinner than most. Their starters average a crazy sum of minutes, and they don't have much options off the bench, which isn't a great formula for the tough play of March and April. Perhaps most notable is the lack of a true go-to option down low. As I mentioned, there is plenty of upside and potential down the line for the frontcourt, but the group is experiencing major growing pains. Center Alex Olah (now graduated) wasn't a superstar, but was terrific defensively and off the pic-and-roll, something that is mostly absent on the 2017 edition.

The Big Ten is down this season by its normal standards. Outside of Purdue and Wisconsin (and possibly Maryland), there is not really a team that scares you. Northwestern is certainly trying to fill that role, but they have to also deal with the reputation of the conference. We will get a good indication on what the Selection Committee thinks of the conference when they unveil their rankings at that point in the season later on, but the conference is not great, which could hurt Northwestern in a number of ways. It might not give them the competition experience they need to survive in March and could hurt their resume if they do end up on the bubble. Hurting Northwestern right now as well is the lack of a real, high-quality non-conference victory. They beat then-ranked No. 22 Texas earlier but the Longhorns have really fallen off, making a win over bubble-team Dayton their signature victory, which is not altogether comforting.

For all the negatives that may exist, lets appreciate the team's rise. They played good basketball over the first three seasons of the Collins era, but this is really the first team they are a serious contender. They have as much backcourt scoring as you can get, and can still score in plenty of ways, while showing they can go on the road and also hang with anyone. Right now, to say they won't make the NCAA Tournament is bold, but maybe not absurd. They are in very good position, and their schedule gets very light once they get past a two-game stretch against Wisconsin and Maryland. I hate to jinx anything, but there is a different feeling to this year's Northwestern. They can legitimately play 40 minutes with just about anyone, and they have as much fight and heart as anybody in the country. If things go right, I envision them as not only an NCAA Tournament team, but one that could do plenty of damage once they get there.

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