The question always persists: Is this the year for the Northwestern Wildcats? It is hard to prove, but there are reasons to believe.
Caution is always the word for the Northwestern fan when it comes to the basketball team.
The one big question always looms and it is easy for people to get excited and race ahead, thinking about March before January has even begun. The Wildcats are not playing super elite teams and their few chances to score the big win typically fall short.
And then the Wildcats fall flat in Big Ten play — the ultimate decider of their fate each year — unable to get the big win they need to get over the hump.
Yet, here comes Finals Week in Evanston. Northwestern is sitting at 6-2 with respectable losses to Butler (KenPom No. 20) and Notre Dame (KenPom No. 25). Their best win is over KenPom No. 53 Wake Forest and the Cats still play KenPom No. 41 Dayton.
Northwestern’s resume is intriguing if not quite impressive yet through the meat of the team’s non-conference schedule.
The Wildcats, as they always do, have to be stellar within the Big Ten to get over that hump finally.
That is the usual story with Northwestern, though. That part is not any different. The Wildcats always have to be that way. Their non-conference schedule is good but not great and they typically split those key games.
Something feels different this time. Perhaps it is the endless optimism of Northwestern finally breaking that streak and making the NCAA Tournament. March dreams begin to dance around as the team heads into the conference schedule.
But that feels even more realistic with the way Northwestern has won. The Wildcats are playing basketball at a higher level, blowing out poorer teams with ease and a constant barrage of 3-point shooting. The Cats got star turns from their star players. They have seen underclassmen step up into new roles and everyone else fill in.
Bryant McIntosh going off for 17 points in the second half to defeat Wake Forest in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge is not something a Northwestern team does. Posting a 95.5 adjusted defensive rating, near the top 50 in the entire nation, is not something Northwestern does. Shooting a 53.7 percent effective field goal percentage as a team is not something Northwestern does.
The Wildcats feel different this year. There is still skepticism but also a growing belief that, yes, this may be the year for Northwestern.
For the first time in several years, Northwestern has a bit more balance offensively. Bryant McIntosh had to carry the load over and over again last year, playing nearly the entire game while shouldering nearly all of the scoring load and playmaking load.
McIntosh has struggled to start the season. He is averaging 12.9 points and 4.6 assists per game. He has not been the catalyst for Northwestern early. But there is still plenty of confidence he can take over and bring his numbers up. There is no reason to believe he cannot return to his averages.
The emergence though of Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law has transformed Northwestern.
Lindsey, a role player with last year’s team who struggled to make shots consistently, is averaging 15.5 points per game while shooting 46.4 percent from beyond the arc. He has a 56.7 percent effective field goal percentage.
Lindsey, in other words, is on fire from beyond the arc. And it is not just that he is a strong shooter. He is also good at attacking the basket and scoring in transition. New elements to his game that have helped lift him.
He already had cemented himself as one of Northwestern’s better defenders.
After missing all of last year, Vic Law has looked like the ESPNU 100 player he was two years ago when he became the most highly touted recruit Northwestern has likely ever brought in.
He leads the team in scoring with 16.1 points per game, making 54.1 percent of his 3-pointers. And he does take quite a few of those.
Law is the athletic scorer Northwestern has never had and, as just a sophomore, still has plenty of room to grow on both ends.
The mix of all this talent, along with key role players like senior Sanjay Lumpkin and Gavin Skelly with freshman Isaiah Brown as a backup point guard scoring dynamo and sophomore Dererk Pardon as a rebounder and banger down low, and the Wildcats begin to look like a real team.
The path is never easy for Northwestern. Pardon is out until at least January with a hand injury suffered last week. His absence will be huge for Northwestern without another big body in the post or a strong rebounder. Freshman Barrett Benson will have to fill the role.
It does still seem Northwestern is one misfortune away from the whole thing collapsing. That is the nature of Northwestern.
And no one is going to speak too loudly about March plans. The Wildcats still have that goal in mind, but making the NIT would be a huge step for Chris Collins and his program as the continues to push the program.
Results will matter and Northwestern needs to see some postseason results. Once the big door opens, who knows what Northwestern can be?
There it goes racing ahead again. The Wildcats have played some stellar defense. They have shot the ball incredibly well. Will that all last? What will happen when the chips are laid down in conference play?
Northwestern has challenged itself with its schedule more than in years past. And the Wildcats have scored some big wins. The way this team has played, it is hard to explain and hard to prove.
The way this team has played, it is hard to explain and hard to prove, but hope remains that this may finally be the year.