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For Northwestern Wildcats basketball, now the fun begins

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Vic Law, Northwestern

Northwestern has made it through the non-conference with some quality wins and no bad losses. The door is open to make it, if the team performs in B1G play.

Northwestern is the story once again.

Sports Illustrated, the NCAA’s official March Madness twitter account, the bracketologists. Everyone is beginning to think the same thing as Northwestern finished its non-conference schedule with an 11-2 record, the two losses to ranked Butler and Notre Dame and quality wins over Texas and Dayton.

Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com is among the bracketologists to have Northwestern in the field. And he is not alone.

For the first time, the Wildcats did not trip over themselves — although both Chicago State and Houston Baptist tried. There are no bad losses, there are a few good wins. And the Wildcats enter the conference season firmly in control of their own destiny.

Yes, Northwestern is in firm control over its own NCAA Tournament destiny. I repeat: Northwestern is in firm control over its own NCAA Tournament destiny.

That may always be the case. The Big Ten is a strong enough conference that a good performance in-conference is usually enough to get a team in the tournament. But it feels Northwestern can aim for more and find some more wiggle room this year with the team’s schedule.

The path for Northwestern to make the NCAA Tournament is as open as it has ever been.

As the Wildcats begin conference play Wednesday at Penn State, they have the chance to prove this year will be different. Northwestern has long struggled with Penn State in conference play. On several occasions, a loss to the Nittany Lions has derailed the Wildcats’ postseason hopes. Coming out with a win over a Penn State team that is not expected to do much in the conference is vital to Northwestern getting off on the right foot.

The Wildcats have not finished better than .500 in the Big Ten since 1968 and have not finished .500 in conference since 2004. The task is still very tall for Northwestern to reach that level.

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But perhaps the Wildcats only have to finish at .500 or better to achieve their dreams with the work they have done out of conference. Then again, maybe Northwestern cannot rely on that. The team may still need a few good wins and to avoid any bad losses in conference.

The challenge then is set out for Northwestern. The question is whether they will rise to meet it.

Northwestern has been here before needing a stellar conference season to make it. But this team does seem more equipped than ever to make that magical run.

Bryant McIntosh has not had to carry the huge scoring load he had to carry last year. Victor Law has returned from the shoulder injury that cost him all of last season without missing a beat. He looks like he has made the big step forward from his freshman year two years ago.

The Wildcats have gotten key bench contributions from Gavin Skelly and freshman Isaiah Brown. Sanjay Lumpkin has helped lock down the glass along with freshman Barret Benson while Dererk Pardon recovers from a broken thumb.

This is a team that has balance and seems to fit together. On both ends. Northwestern has shown an incredible ability to hit 3-pointers and spread the floor for McIntosh and Law to attack and a strong defense that makes life hard with its versatility and ability to switch.

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All of this, of course, will get tested in Big Ten play. That is where the physicality increases and the Wildcats’ lack of size, especially without Pardon could become exposed.

And Northwestern has been far from perfect.

Wins over both Chicago State and Houston Baptist were a little too close to comfort. And those are both teams that, no offense, hurt a team’s RPI just by playing them. Losses in either of those games would have been catastrophic.

Those two non-conference wins showed how Northwestern can let go of the gas pedal and struggle on offense. The Wildcats pulled out both wins in the end. But the specter of those games may come back at some point during conference season.

For sure, Northwestern’s attention will have to be up to perform well in the conference. The door is open though. The door is wide open for Northwestern to end that streak.

The Wildcats have some room for error. Some, but not much. Northwestern controls its own destiny.

In the next three months, NU will find out if it can finally do what has been impossible before now. Now, the fun begins for the quest for that first NCAA Tournament berth.

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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