Postseason Hoops Mailbag: Part One

Part I of the mailbag, mainly focused on one long answer question.

This part isn't really a mailbag. We asked for postseason questions when Northwestern lost to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament. One was asked the most often, and there's no way to answer it in short form.

Who will be the starting five next year at the beginning of Big Ten play? — @billyagee

The locks

Bryant McIntosh

On occasion, recruiting stories are the best. I first heard about Bryant McIntosh shortly after his de-commitment from Indiana State. The new Northwestern coaching staff badly needed a point guard, so Armon Gates and Chris Collins contacted McIntosh and let their interest be known.

The following night, somewhere in the Midwest, I watched Bryant dominate an AAU game. He told me about a Florida State offer, mentioned NU interest, and everything went from there. The next day, Chris Collins flew in and watched him dominate many more. He would never miss another one of his AAU games.

Now, you should trust Chris Collins. He didn't just recruit a bunch of point guards and then settle on one. He stopped recruiting other point guards and made McIntosh the lone priority after top-75 recruit Vic Law. If this wasn't "all out," I don't know what is.

(Also, Matt Painter waited to offer Bryant, another of the 5,000 reasons why a competent AD would just let him go.)

Here were the requirements: (1) Athletic: Someone who can push the basketball, keep up with his teammates and use his length to knock down a variety of shots. (2) Mature: A proven winner at the high school level, someone who fights for loose balls (rare in AAU) and has the competitive streak. (3) Someone who wanted to play for Northwestern.

The people who doubt recruiting analysts—including me—really get into this whole star rankings thing. That's just the tip of the iceberg. Star evaluations recognize talent levels, but think about how much range there would be between the best and worst three-star prospects. It's immeasurable. Just watch them play.

But yeah, I'll stake my reputation as a journalist in saying that McIntosh will bring Northwestern to an NCAA Tournament. He's an excellent offensive player: He'll light it up from three with a solid stroke, roll into the paint and pull up for floaters. Better, he can engage teammates, as evidenced by his run to the 3A State Championship game.

McIntosh will start because he's the reflection of a new program. The Wildcats went into Indiana and stole an in-state talent that schools like Memphis, Iowa, West Virginia, Purdue, Oregon State (Craig Robinson oh no), Creighton, Cincinnati and others were after. It was a huge, huge recruiting victory

NU also added help alongside him, with Johnnie Vassar (more on him later) joining the backcourt. I've been criticized for my writing about Dave Sobolewski, despite him shooting a robust 26 percent this year (18 percent from three). He's a nicer guy than I am, I'm sure, but let's just make a factual remark one more time.

Northwestern wants big men. But in December, they signed Vassar—a talented athlete who plays his high school ball in California. Another guard. The staff, and this can't be interpreted with much leeway, recruited over a rising senior point guard in the middle of the season. It's clear that they want to compete for the postseason in 2014-15 (NIT seems like the right goal), and that's only going to arrive through top-to-bottom strength.

Two-to-one odds that Collins talks to the media about "no spot locked up" and "anyone could win the point guard role. Nope.

Jershon Cobb

I've been at odds with the NU analytics crowd, mainly because if I wanted to read KenPom, I'd just open my browser, and you know, read KenPom.

JerShon Cobb has this love of midrange jumpers. I understand the basic basketball concepts. Cool, we love layups and three-pointers and we can do away with everything in between. Just ask Jay Wright and Villanova (still so salty).

But that's not what JerShon Cobb does. He's not an excellent three-point shooter, though he makes about 35 percent. He's not outstanding around the basket, because NU needs to work this offseason on drawing much, much more contact. He's also prone to slumping—not to Crawford levels but close.

This is what he does. He makes you guess. Scouting JerShon Cobb can be difficult because he'll play three positions, beat you from outside on occasion, and master the pump fake before he steps into his 17-foot jump shot. On an offense that lacked nuance or skill, he dropped an impressive 12.2 points per game. At long last, he lived up to his potential. (Injuries helped.)

Near the end of the year, it looked as though he (finally) understood the gravity of his role. There were some November and December games when he yielded to Crawford. At the very least—during the wins and the losses—he started trying to take over.

In his last eight games before the injury, Cobb averaged more than 14 points and five rebounds. For much of that stretch, he was considerably better than Drew Crawford—who grew frustrated especially in late season home games.

If JerShon Cobb can improve even more next year, and work with a talented group of freshmen, Evanston will love him.

Alex Olah

Is he an NBA-caliber center? Ha.

Even discussing that misses the point.

Alex Olah was outstanding in five of his last six games. On the season, he improved his shooting percentage by nine points, his free throw shooting by 10, and his rebounding average by one.

This hints at his potential to be great—not that he is great. He's good. We have extremely low standards for big men, though most coaches would like to have him.

(By the way, what's up with the stupid storyline about other coaches liking Chris Collins? They all liked and respected Bill Carmody, too. It's not news that Big Ten coaches aren't trashing one another in media sessions across the Midwest. I don't care what they think.)

Here's what I'm interested in seeing. Everyone knows Northwestern wants to cement its roster for next season with a transfer. There are two spots open, and one will probably be used.

If a big, bruising four-man absorbed some frontcourt attention, could Olah be great? On this year's team, without a true four aside from Nikola Cerina, Olah faced the bulk of pressure on the interior. His efficiency could skyrocket–and team rebounding could certainly improve—with a little bit of help. He's almost guaranteed to have some in two seasons; it would be nice next year as well.

Of course, he's a lock to start.


Vic Law

I recently wrote a story about Vic Law after watching his Senior Night at St. Rita. Many thought I was negative, in that I discussed the limits to our expectations.

That's not really the point. Vic Law is everything of the top-75 recruit you imagine. No one leaves their high school doors without structural flaws in their game. I just wanted (to try) to confront some of the misperceptions about him.

It will take a collective effort to rebuild Northwestern basketball. Schools with great reputations can rely on landing great recruits. Others, like Northwestern, just need to connect on all of them. (If Carmody had done better at recruiting bigs…) For this to work, it will be a lot of Vic Law and a lot of Scott Lindsey. These things take time.

Calling Vic Law the savior—honestly, I might have once or twice—would be kind of misleading. I think he's a low-impact starter to begin and then grows into a career statistically similar to that of Drew Crawford.

He can shoot. He's calm. He can block shots. I loved his maturity in all situations, and that should carry over to his excellent development. The guy can be coached.

I've been criticized for treating the incoming freshmen too nicely, while being too harsh on current players. Fair, but I'll be the first to admit that it would be insane to rush the class of 2014. Law should start. I'm not guaranteeing it.

Sanjay Lumpkin

Sanjay Lumpkin is a fine player. He's so close to upping his game another level. Or so far. I'm not sure.

This is not a drill: If he could make a layup consistently, he'd be a very reasonable start.

This offseason, Brian James should take Lumpkin, plant him under one of the side baskets, and instruct him to do Mikan Drills for hours.

I appreciated Lumpkin at the beginning of the season. He looked unreasonably good against poorer competition, and regressed slightly, but the ideas remained. He can defend and has that elusive intensity. That carries over to teammates, and I considered him one of the many keys to the neat midseason run.

Still, he lacks any offensive skill. If one falls into place—even something as basic as a layup—he'd be a much more advanced player. He's a nice piece moving forward, and a very likely start.


I'm not going to mention any possible transfers yet. It's too soon to guess, and too impossible to judge how it would affect the current roster. They should get one, though.

There are some strengths to the above starting lineup. They can shoot better, with Law and McIntosh both excellent perimeter threats. You're also not giving up a ton of defense, and McIntosh is someone who can in that department under this coaching staff. (The midseason run proved a lot about Collins' abilities, frankly.) Plus, the overall talent gap shrinks with two talented freshmen.

It's hard to imagine a Big Ten team starting two freshmen and having enough in the tank. The bench can provide some help, but most important is that they gel with each other. There are competing playing styles at hand, and that leads me into my only substantive argument.


Should Start

Tre Demps

Tre Demps is the perfect player for this team. The NU staff wants players who love basketball more than anything. It's not that the old Wildcat teams failed to enjoy the sport; they just had another focus as well.

Everyone jokes about Tre Demps' work ethic. Former NU player Alex Marcotullio used to say that you could find Demps in the gym at 3 a.m. For a while, it stalled. Under Collins, it paid off.

I'm not too into arguing whether Carmody or Collins would have won more with last season's roster. One, it's a pointless argument that no other fans would make. Two, if you think the difference would have been at all significant, you're out of your mind.

My only exceptions: The Princeton offense obscured Dave Sobolewski's weaknesses, and it also forced Tre Demps into an inflexible role. Collins gave him more freedom in the new offense, and that paid dividends. You can add his hard work, which paid off.

Demps was not entirely efficient, but he improved and knocked down important shots like no other player did. That's nice, but here's my dream.

Chris Collins goes to Tre Demps in the coming weeks. He says: "You're playing point guard." Demps says O.K. Demps dribbles basketballs for 19 hours a day, spins wildly in his free time, chucks behind-the-back passes off of his living room wall, and returns to Northwestern readier than anything. That would be very Tre Demps.

Then, Demps joins the starting lineup in exactly the mold Collins wants. It would lose them a lot of games initially, but here's what happens.

Demps plays point guard. Bryant McIntosh plays lead guard, sort of like the Jon Scheyer role. He's 6-4 and can rebound and pass, which helps. JerShon Cobb slides down for more responsibility on the glass, and Vic Law rounds out the four-around-one with Alex Olah inside.

The defense would suffer a bit until they adjusted. The rebounding would probably suffer all year, in typical NU fashion.

But I imagine the offense being absolute dynamite. The Wildcats would have four guys who can shoot upwards of 35 percent from three. They could (kind of) run the floor. They'd have some great flexibility in terms of offensive sets.

They are not a tournament team next year. By implementing this system—more of the two-PG look Collins desires—the team might define what it wants in the future.

Everyone else

Johnnie Vassar

He's a development project. He can play right away in limited minutes. Collins does not believe in redshirts. But first, they need to work his athleticism into something constructive, turning him into a solid Big Ten player. He could be a strong physical spark.

Dave Sobolewski

Unless this becomes a statement from the head coach, I don't anticipate him having a chance. Ten minutes would be the ceiling for Sobolewski in any game, unless Vassar truly fails as an incoming freshman.

Nate Taphorn

I'm optimistic that with more natural talent on the floor, Taphorn can establish himself as a spot-up shooting threat. He seized up, as is natural. It's entirely possible that he can erupt in some games next year. It wouldn't be out of the realm.

Scott Lindsey

I'm interested to see how he's used—perhaps more so than anyone else. He might be the most confident shooter on the team. If that translates to game time, and if he can run and keep up with everyone else, he could slide into some minutes by conference season.

Gavin Skelly

This one's my favorite. It might take one year or two, but Skelly will tease everyone with enormous ceiling. Don't be confused by the lack of offers. Collins made him commit on the spot when he offered. He knew others were coming. I compared Skelly to Aaron White of Iowa, which can be scarily accurate in certain areas. I love his post presence; he could play significant minutes if he gains in size and strength.

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