Season Outlook: Northwestern

Likes, dislikes and game-by-game predictions from Nick Medline.

LIKES

— Northwestern returns the old and exciting core, with Jershon Cobb, Drew Crawford and Dave Sobolewski finally functioning in the same lineup once again. If Cobb proves himself an able scorer–and let's assume he does–then NU's third-year floor general can take advantage of having multiple slashers and offensive weapons. When opposing defenses focus solely on stopping Crawford, the team's best player, they need additional scoring options to compete.

— Collins promised rebounding skills; let's hope NU can even marginally improve in that area. Bill Carmody's teams lost countless games due to poor rebounding, including the fateful Feb. 28, 2012 loss to Ohio State in which Jared Sullinger outrebounded the Wildcats. With the "rebounding-by-committee" approach, I'm optimistic regarding Collins' ability to maximize his team's potential on the glass. They don't need anything great, but would clearly benefit from passable rebounding numbers this year.

— I'm expecting some minor improvements that could culminate in better results. For example, I'm predicting a nine-point average scoring increase for NU, mainly when minor players improve their efficiency. So many players were forced into minutes far too soon, which sped up their development and led to early struggles. Kale Abrahamson immediately comes to mind. In the right offense and role, guys like Abrahamson, Cerina and even James Montgomery III might stake their claim to enhanced roles.

— The words "defense" and "rebounding" are being raised more often than usual. Regardless of whether Sanjay Lumpkin emerges as the star (more on my skepticism later), Collins and his coaching staff place an important emphasis on these elements. It sounds crazy, but the current roster holds perhaps two above-average defenders — and some players who are very poor on that end. Collins has already focused on recruiting guys who can hold up defensively against Big Ten competition; it was one perk to adding Bryant McIntosh as well.

— I'm expecting major improvements from Cobb, but not in the ways you might figure. One of our dedicated readers tweeted at me predicting 12 points per game from Cobb, which I consider a great deal to ask given that he's never averaged more than seven. But as more of the facilitator–and even the occasional point guard–he can find teammates and create matchup difficulties. My conservative 8.5 PPG guess is unreflective of his overall impact, which will include solid on-ball defense and key rebounding prowess.

DISLIKES

— This sounds crazy: I'm not convinced that the Wildcats can shoot well enough. They were brutal from behind the arc by their standards in 2012-13, making 34.1 percent of attempts — good for 166th in the country. Sobolewski, Abrahamson and Tre Demps all shot around this mark, with Drew Crawford likely to bring a burst of efficiency. Even Cobb shot only 31 percent from three in his first two seasons, making this a major question mark moving forward. Mediocre shooting will ruin this Wildcats team, so they need to either slash better than ever or find their range quickly.

— Look, if Sanjay Lumpkin's really "fighting" to start over true freshman Nate Taphorn, he can only be so successful. This being speculation, I'm not sure he has enough offensive game to succeed as the team's fifth starter. With that, the pent-up hype seems awfully questionable. Taphorn, who needs to bulk up and improve ball-handling skills before starting, can contribute right away — but not as a Big Ten starter. Lumpkin owns some impressive athleticism; I'll need to see much, much more before considering him an ideal "glue guy," as Collins labeled him.

— This team lacks any semblance of big man depth. Alex Olah stands as NU's lone center, with power forward Nikola Cerina stealing minutes behind him. You can't call Kale Abrahamson, Nate Taphorn or Drew Crawford a "4-man" without smirking and/or grimacing. So this marks the Wildcats' most glaring hole, with Olah needed to absorb major minutes for a seven-foot player. Then, Cerina might be the team's X-factor given the size deficits this team will face in conference season. The Sobo-Cobb-Lumpkin-Crawford-Olah lineup looks talented on paper, but tiny on the floor.

— The Wildcats also lack point guard depth. Jeremy Woo and I always subscribe to the argument that you can't throw any average player in at point guard. The Big Ten is no video game, a situation in which anyone decent enough can handle the ball. Dave Sobolewski should play 35 minutes at point guard in most games — simply because he's the only option. Cobb should spell Sobo only in rare situations. They're counting the days until McIntosh brings another perfect option.

GAME PREDICTIONS

Lewis — W
Eastern Illinois — W
@ Stanford — L
Illinois State – W
UIC – W
IUPUI – W
Gardner-Webb – W
Missouri (Las Vegas) – L
UCLA (Las Vegas) – L
@ NC State – L
Western Michigan – W
Mississippi Valley State – W
Brown – W
DePaul – W
Wisconsin – L
@ Michigan – L
@ Iowa – L
Illinois – W
Michigan State – L
@ Indiana – L
Purdue – W
Iowa – L
@ Wisconsin – L
@ Minnesota – L
Nebraska – L
@ Michigan State – L
Minnesota – W
@ Ohio State – L
Indiana – W
@ Nebraska – W
Penn State – W
@ Purdue – W

PROJECTED RECORD: (17-15, 7-11)

QUICK REACTION

Despite brutal inconsistency (some surprise wins, some ugly losses), I'm predicting an excellent finish to the season for Northwestern, which finally figures out its potential at the end of Collins' first year. Oh, and I'm also guessing that the Wildcats will earn an NIT berth and move deep into the postseason tournament — propelled by Crawford and Collins' motivation.


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