The Northwestern Wildcats made their first NCAA Tournament last year and lost to Gonzaga in the second round after defeating Vanderbilt in the first round. Head Coach Chris Collins is in his fifth season at the helm of the Northwestern basketball program. The Wildcats came into the 2017-18 season with lofty expectations and were ranked in the preseason AP poll. The Wildcats home arena, Welsh-Ryan Arena, is undergoing renovations this season, so Northwestern is playing all of their home games at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
The Wildcats have struggled in the early season. They are 4-3 with losses to Creighton, Texas Tech and Georgia Tech. All three losses come to high-major programs, but for a team many expected to be back in the NCAA Tournament again, these are underwhelming results.
The loss to Creighton came at home and Creighton has shown flashes of being a contender in the Big East this year. The loss to Texas Tech was a bit of a head scratcher. The Wildcats lost to the Red Raiders by 36 by a final score of 85-49 in the Hall-Of-Fame Tipoff. And they also lost in the ACC-B1G Challenge on Tuesday on a buzzer beater layup. Northwestern was losing for most of the game to the Yellow Jackets, but they were able to come all the way back and take a lead with 7 seconds left, only to have GT spoil the party.
It’s imperative the Wildcats show out in Big Ten play to make up for their lackluster start in the non-conference schedule.
Key Losses and Additions
The Wildcats return most of their roster from a year ago. They only lose Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn to graduation. Lumpkin started every game for the Wildcats averaging 6 points per game, while Taphorn came off the bench and led Northwestern in three point shooting at 47%.
Most of Northwestern’s contributors were on last year’s team. They have added two freshmen including Anthony Gaines who has come off the bench and given them two points and one rebound per game at the guard position.
The Wildcats were projected to be so good because they return their Core Four of McIntosh, Lindsey, Pardon and Law from last year’s team. Any of which can carry the team on any given night. Each player fits a very specific role and contributes in their own way to help the team win.
McIntosh receives a lot of the credit and accolades out of these four players. While I think players like Law and Lindsey may be more talented, I think McIntosh has the best chance to have the biggest night against Illinois on Friday night. McIntosh has the ball in his hands quite a bit for the Wildcats, and if Illinois’ pressure defense falters, McIntosh could be in store for some easy buckets. If McIntosh is able to get past Lucas and Frazier at the top of the defense, he will be able to finish at the rim or nail floaters with ease due to the Illini’s lack of rim protectors. And if Illinois collapses on him when he gets into the paint, he has the vision to kick out to Lindsey and Law for open threes and rack up the assist totals.
Before the season I had looked ahead to this game and had it earmarked as a loss. And even though Northwestern has struggled, that’s still how I feel. Northwestern’s four returning starters should be prepared and ready to handle whatever Illinois throws at them. Illinois just hasn’t done enough to prove that they can out duel Northwestern’s experience on the road. Illinois is going to need to be far more consistent than what they showed on Tuesday night in Winston Salem if they want to come out on top.
Illinois 68, Northwestern 75.