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Northwestern is on its way. . . but still has lessons to learn

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Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern Wildcats, Missouri Tigers

Northwestern went toe to toe in an important conference game with the ability to separate at-large hopefuls. But they still have lessons to learn to win.

Breaking one of sports greatest curses is never without its pitfalls and difficulties. The Cleveland Cavaliers had to come back from down 3-1 just as the Chicago Cubs did a few months later. Northwestern’s turn was never going to be easy. It was never going to be a straight line.

When something has never been done before, the first time is never going to be easy. The weight of history is always present. Every win inches the team closer. Every loss sets the team back. And the losses always outweigh the wins.

That is the stage the Northwestern Wildcats enter seemingly every game now that they have turned to conference season seemingly in control of their own destiny — in a wide-open Big Ten, at that. Here the team was facing its first big “toss-up” game with another at-large opponent in Minnesota. This was a chance for separation.

Northwestern’s season was not on the line. But the Wildcats could get a big confidence boost heading into the first part of their schedule and serve notice they were first in line among the bubble teams in the conference.

For 40 minutes, these two teams showed they were equals. The Wildcats, though, found themselves with the most regret. The weight of the moment might be light — officially, Northwestern is not talking about the history this group is trying to write — but it feels enormous in those close moments.

There is no time to rest or relax. Peril and frustration are always right around the corner.

When Scottie Lindsey got a steal and raced down the court for an emphatic dunk for a 47-40 Northwestern lead, it felt liberating. Northwestern had gone toe-to-toe with an upstart Minnesota team and was beginning to assert itself on its home floor. The Wildcats were beginning to dominate the game like a Tournament team should.

All those questions and doubts were flushed through that net. The ovation was loud enough and staggering enough for Richard Pitino to call a timeout just to stem the tide. The Wildcats were executing on offense, making shots and controlling the pace defensively. The Gophers were not able to hit much.

It is never easy, though. This may very end up being “the year” for Northwestern. There is still a long way to go. The Gophers were not going to let the Wildcats off that easy.

They came out of that timeout and scored 10 straight points to take the lead back — and for good. Northwestern missed shot after shot.

Down the stretch, trailing by three and five points, open three after open three just would not fall. Perhaps Minnesota was willing to give up those shots. Gavin Skelly ended up taking six 3-pointers, missing all of them. But they were good looks. The kind of shots Northwestern has to take.

The results matter too. That is all the committee will care about. And a 70-66 loss to Minnesota at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday does not spell the end for Northwestern. But it stings a lot.

The Wildcats are tantalizingly close. This is a team with length defensively on the perimeter and a grittiness that does not allow them to quit. Even as the Wildcats fell behind by five in the closing seconds and watched open 3s from their good 3-point shooters fall short, they dug out rebounds and extra possessions to keep things close. Northwestern will fight and scratch for every chance to win.

Northwestern will not miss those shots all the time. For the game, the Wildcats shot 38.1 percent from the floor and 6 for 26 from beyond the arc. They were just 1 for 15 from beyond the arc in the second half. The shots were there, they just would not go down.

After that dunk that put Northwestern up seven, the team could not execute the same way. Minnesota switched on those dribble hand offs, the passes were not crisp and Minnesota’s length on the perimeter disrupted any attempt to create space. The Wildcats’ offense came to a standstill.

The defense kept the Cats in it, for sure. But they were still a bit undersized going up against Reggie Lynch. He totaled six offensive rebounds for the game and was a constant problem. Northwestern pluckiness against that size could only take them so far.

The Wildcats have to make shots and have to rely on their stars — Bryant McIntosh and Victor Law specifically — when they are going through these droughts. Northwestern just could not seem to make the right plays.

McIntosh finished with 21 points and five assists. Law finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, making four of his 12 shots. They could not keep pace as Minnesota made its run.

These are the lessons the Wildcats are still learning about winning at a high level. It is going to be a continuing lesson.

But Northwestern is close. Oh so close.

The sky is not falling after this loss. There will be another opportunity — namely, Sunday at Nebraska. And then another after that. The Wildcats, even at 1-2 in the Big Ten, may very well still control their own destiny.

But they must learn the lessons of this game, whether it is just making shots or figuring out how to execute better when physical defense knocks them out of rhythm, if they want to release history’s weight off this program’s shoulders.

Northwestern showed itself more than capable against a fellow bubble team in Minnesota. Now the Wildcats just have to win these games and begin separating themselves from the pack.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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Northwestern

Northwestern Wildcats caught in a bind with Jordan Lathon’s surprise release

Northwestern University has rescinded their offer of admission to star guard Jordan Lathon. That leaves Northwestern in a deep bind at point guard.

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Bryant McIntosh, Chris Collins, Northwestern Wildcats

The Northwestern Wildcats have seen a sudden rash of transfers that have begun to gut the roster some. Especially at the important point guard position.

One more loss might be the biggest and most mysterious of them all.

Friday, Inside NU reports Northwestern had rescinded its offer of admission and the national letter of intent to Jordan Lathon. Lathon responded on Twitter, thanking coach Chris Collins and the Northwestern community for their support. It is not clear at this point why Lathon was unable to enroll at Northwestern.

https://twitter.com/j2lathon/status/1000145538745028608

Whatever the issues are — whether it was Lathon not meeting some requirement or Lathon deciding to go to a different school — everyone has to hope Lathon find the place and the situation that fits best for him — both on and off the court.

There will be an undoubted effect on the court for the Wildcats in losing this prized recruit.

Lathon was a four-star prospect from Grandview, Missouri. He was undoubtedly one of the best recruits — at least from the recruiting services — ever to come to Northwestern. The kind of player that only Chris Collins seemed capable of getting for this program. And, yes, a direct beneficiary of the Wildcats’ first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.

With Bryant McIntosh graduating and Isiah Brown transferring, Northwestern was thin at point guard. There seemed to be a very realistic chance Lathon would start this year. His departure leaves the Wildcats with just Jordan Ash and Anthony Gaines to play point guard. Both struggled to stay in the rotation last year.

That puts the Wildcats in a major bind on the court. The team is going to need someone to step up. And then eventually to find a long-term answer at the position — possibly in the upcoming recruiting class now that Lathon is gone.

It is hard to say a whole lot about Lathon’s situation. The reason he will not be attending Northwestern is unclear. All we know is Northwestern denied his admission for whatever reason.

And now Chris Collins will have to scramble to find a replacement or make due with what he has and hope someone steps up.

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Northwestern

Recruiting loss leaves Northwestern in a point guard bind

The Northwestern Wildcats struggled with their point guard depth last year, relying heavily on Bryant McIntosh. Now he is gone and a recruiting loss leaves a lot of questions at this critical spot.

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Northwestern Wildcats, Jordan Ash

The Northwestern Wildcats’ disappointing basketball season last year seemed like a blip on the road to consistent respectability. This was still a program and a team on the rise with a strong head coach, a renovated building and the budding confidence to assert itself.

Last year’s team — largely a run back of the previous year’s breakthrough NCAA Tournament team — never quite got itself off the ground. Perhaps everyone expected success to roll over easy. Maybe the team really missed the intangible tough qualities from graduating senior Sanjay Lumpkin. Maybe injuries were just too much to overcome.

It was not a good year. But optimism remains for 2019.

The Wildcats know they will have their work cut out for them in the debut of the new Welsh-Ryan Arena. They have veteran players like Vic Law and Dererk Pardon to anchor the team. But it has also been a summer of massive change for the program.

The team will be moving into the renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena at some point. But more importantly, the loss of seniors Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey leave a gaping hole for the program. Especially considering the other attrition from the roster — Rapolas Ivanauskas and Isiah Brown’s transfer.

If there was another contributing factor that no one spoke of that led to Northwestern’s difficult season, it was the poor development of young players, especially at guard.

Brown struggled to step into the role as the backup point guard, averaging 3.9 points per game and playing just 10.8 minutes per game. Freshman Anthony Gaines did not fare much better, averaging 4.0 points per game in 18.6 minutes per game.

McIntosh, even through injuries and his own shooting struggles, had to carry a heavy creation load for the team last year. He played 31.3 minutes per game for the season. And Lindsey and Law had to carry a heavy minutes burden too. Northwestern’s poor depth put a lot of strain on the team and it simply was not able to hold up.

That does not bode well with two of those heavy minute players gone. Their replacements are not particularly clear — although with a hopefully healthy Law, the team seems loaded on wings.

That is what made the pursuit of grad transfer Matt Mooney seemingly more important.

The South Dakota guard averaged 18.7 points per game and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 35.2 percent from beyond the arc. He is not going to completely change everyone’s fortunes, but he is clearly a capable scorer. And his recruitment in the grad transfer market was heated.

Northwestern already had a win in the grad transfer market with Ryan Taylor. But the team would not win this one. That will leave the Wildcats incredibly thin and uncertain at point guard.

That puts Northwestern in a tough spot at point guard.

Senior Jordan Ash, sophomore Anthony Gaines and incoming freshman Jordan Lathon are the only ball handlers on the roster now. Ash and Gaines have struggled in their time at Northwestern. Ash played only 11.3 minutes per game last year and has not taken that step forward.

Lathon is an intriguing prospect. He is a four-star prospect according to 247Sports and someone who could make an immediate impact. Freshmen can be fickle and unreliable, of course, but the Wildcats may not have any other options.

This is the hole the Wildcats will have to figure out heading into the season in November.

There is still a lot of time and Lathon and the other freshman have not arrived on campus. But Collins, despite winning the recruiting rankings relative to Northwestern, has not been as solid a player development coach as thought.

Ivanauskas was a celebrated recruit when he arrived in Evanston. Injuries kept him from making an impact in his first two years, but he is now gone from the program.

Law, the most celebrate recruit to arrive in Evanston, has had a solid career. He generated some NBA buzz, but it has been largely uneven too.

Collins may not have missed often enough to deter Northwestern’s seeming march forward. But there have been more than a few misses that have hurt the team’s depth.

A strong recruiting class with Pete Nance and Miller Kopp will add further depths on the wing. The Wildcats reaped the rewards from their NCAA Tournament appearance.

This should be a team in the hunt for the NCAA Tournament again in 2019. But it will only go as far as its point guard development can take it. If Lathon can make an immediate impact then Northwestern could again break through.

If he cannot, the losses in recruiting will stand out that much more.

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Northwestern

Northwestern Wildcats basketball seeks some punch in a grad transfer

The Northwestern Wildcats went to the transfer market to bolster their offense as the program tries to replace some key players and get back into the NCAA Tournament.

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Chris Collins, Northwestern Wildcats

The Northwestern Wildcats basketball season did not end how anyone would want it. The careers for Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey did not end how anyone wanted them to. This is not the how the team was supposed to follow up its breakthrough NCAA Tournament season.

After that season went away, attention quickly turned to how the Wildcats would make the new Welsh-Ryan Arena feel like home. Northwestern was losing a lot — McIntosh was essentially the team’s heart and soul. And there was an unusual amount of attrition with Rapolas Ivanauskas and Isaiah Brown.

The Wildcats return Victor Law and Dererk Pardon as the anchors for their team. They will need to see more from Anthony Gaines and likely from incoming freshman Jordan Lathon. The Wildcats have some serious holes as they try to bounce back from last year.

Chris Collins dug into the transfer market and hoped to find someone who can help the Wildcats take that next step.

Former Evansville wing Ryan Taylor will transfer to Northwestern as a graduate transfer. Taylor averaged 21.2 points per game and shot 42.1 percent from beyond the arc for Evansville last year. He scored 47 total points in two games against Loyola (Chicago) last year, but there is not a ton of high-level competition on his immediate resume.

Either way, adding the 6-foot-6 forward will help Northwestern replace some of the production lost from Scottie Lindsey. And seeing him pick Northwestern over some other big schools makes this a big get.

As Bryce Bennett of BT Powerhouse notes, this commitment is a big deal for Northwestern. Taylor adds some much-needed shooting something Lindsey struggled with last year.

The team will return Law and Pardon as the anchors from that tournament team. Collins has helped add some talented wing players. But his freshman have not been ready to contribute immediately. Adding in role players like Aaron Falzon and sitting transfer A.J. Turner could make the Wildcats a dangerous team again.

But things will have to come together for them again. In a way they did not last year despite all the pieces being in place. If Northwestern learned anything last year, it is that nothing is guaranteed. Getting back to the tournament will take a lot of work.

And talent alone will not get there. Nor will the expectation of getting there.

Northwestern still has some major holes to fill. With McIntosh gone, the point guard position still feels like an open competition heading into the summer. Northwestern will have experienced wings to help spread the floor. And the team will need Law more than ever to play consistently — he seemed to tire out as the season went on last year.

It is looking like Northwestern will have a lot of the pieces again to make a run. Assuming the team continues to grow and comes together — especially on defense.

Adding a transfer like Taylor will only add to that puzzle. It makes for a potentially exciting a potent offense for the Wildcats this coming season.

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Northwestern

Northwestern Wildcats never had the same spark in disappointing season

The Northwestern Wildcats season ended with disappointment as the team bowed out of the Big Ten Tournament with a whimper.

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Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern Wildcats

The energy was flowing. Down by two points one team was going to find the will to win the game. And it was the team desperate for a win to make the NCAA Tournament.

In went one contested 3-pointer out of a timeout. Then another. Suddenly momentum was flowing in one direction. And suddenly confidence was contagious.

The Northwestern Wildcats had that feeling at one point. It was a year ago to the day exactly.

That is when Nathan Taphorn looped a pass across the length of the court to Dererk Pardon for a layin that would go down in history. It was deserving of constant replays and waves of nostalgia. Both Taphorn and Pardon were in Madison Square Garden — Pardon playing his junior year and Taphorn as a fan in his first year as an alumnus.

The Northwestern team that was on the court was a very different one from that year ago. The fight was not nearly the same. It was not there for this team.

Penn State was the one burning off nine straight points or more in the final stages of the second half, turning NU’s carefully maintained one-point lead into a virtual rout. Tony Carr drained 3-pointer after 3-pointer, often over a contested hand in scoring 25 points in a 65-57 Penn State win at the Big Ten Tournament.

Northwestern’s season is over. A season that was meant to be a confirmation of their tournament breakthrough last year never was. The team could not get out of the gates, lacking the fire. It seemed like NU felt it was going to show up and make the tournament, forgetting the decades of fight and grit needed the first time.

There have been plenty of reports as to why that was the case. Everything from the trek from Evanston to Allstate Arena in Rosemont to a team that felt confident it could reach into those reserves and find the will to win from experience. Then there were other things no one would ever confirm — players looking to expand their own games rather than fit with teammates or players losing focus on the court.

Coach Chris Collins admitted at one point he trusted his senior leaders would reign everyone in at the right moment. His own youth as a head coach caught up to him too.

The Wildcats never really understood how to deal with success and expectation. It was clear something was just off about this team.

It was clear when Texas Tech (a team that turned out to be good in its own right) throttled Northwestern on a neutral court. It became clearer when Trae Young did the same a few weeks later. The Wildcats did not have the same grit and determination on defense.

Chris Collins, ever the Mike Krzyzewski disciple, reluctantly switched to a 2-3 matchup zone to try to create some stability. He found it for a while. Northwestern began to flash some of the potential talent it had. Defeating Michigan seemed to set Northwestern on a long, but doable path.

Then the injuries set in.

Bryant McIntosh was dealing with a knee injury since December. He was not able to get into the lane with the easy he had for much of his four-year career. A shoulder injury late in the year knocked him out completely. It was a minor miracle he played through it all in the big Ten Tournament.

Vic Law got hurt too, missing the last several games. Without his length, athleticism and shooting, Northwestern’s offense seemed to slow to a crawl. The Wildcats already lacked the spark. Now they were depleted and relying on players who were struggling to step up.

Anthony Gaines at least found some life toward the end of the season.

Collins was willing to try anything to keep the season alive. McIntosh was willing to sacrifice himself too. There was no way he was not playing. And he gave everything he had, as he had done throughout his four years.

Northwestern played up to its potential once again for a good chunk of the night. The ball moved well and the team got inside to Dererk Pardon and Barret Benson in a surprise pairing. The team played with real energy and real fight.

That was a more-than-welcome sign for the Wildcats. There are good players coming down the pipe. Anthony Gaines especially stepped up and played strong in the finale.

But it was still a finale. McIntosh was not the player he was with seven points on 3-for-12 shooting. The Wildcats lost a lot in the few minutes he was off the floor. But it was clear he was not 100 percent either.

Scottie Lindsey, the other senior starter, continued a confounding year, making just 4 of 13 shots. He had 12 points and eight rebounds before fouling out. Even without his shot going down, his presence calmed the team on defense especially.

The Wildcats will lose a lot in those two players and a grinder in Gavin Skelly. But they also did not get the most out of their two senior leaders this year. And that will be a big reason why the Wildcats are going home and finishing with a disappointing season.

It was a big reason why Penn State found the will and drive to win at the end. Northwestern lacked that all season.

This was not the season Northwestern wanted. The Wildcats’ big expectations never came to fruition.

Coming back home with a long offseason — and tons of talent coming in with the currently 21st-best recruiting class in the country according to 247Sports — and a little bit of drive could set Northwestern back on the right path.

It just was never there this year. A lesson learned for a young program. And a season squandered.

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