Improved Northwestern might be knocking on door of NCAA bid

SHARE Improved Northwestern might be knocking on door of NCAA bid
SHARE Improved Northwestern might be knocking on door of NCAA bid

Walk into Welsh-Ryan Arena and listen carefully. It’s uttered with a faint whisper.

It’s not for lack of confidence, but avoiding “postseason” talk ensures that Northwestern will be focused on the non-conference schedule that proved to hamstring the Wildcats basketball program last season.

That doesn’t make playing into March any less of a goal for a program very quickly on the rise.

“It’s an incredible opportunity,” junior guard Tre Demps said. “When we all decided to come here, that was our goal and that was our vision. Now that it’s a reality. We know we’ve worked hard to get to this point. It’s humbling.

“We don’t talk about it that much, to be honest.”

The postseason? The monkey on the back of NU hoops is that it never has qualified for the NCAA tournament. Ending that streak of futility might be too much of a burden to place on a team that has six scholarship newcomers, including five freshmen.

Then again, there are surprises every year in college basketball. Northwestern can look to fellow conference member Nebraska, which shocked the Big Ten by making the tournament.

But a spot in a postseason tournaments such as the NIT seems realistic for this group.

For the five-man freshman class — which includes starters Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law and reserves Gavin Skelly, Johnnie Vassar and Scottie Lindsey — getting used to the pace of the college game is the first step.

“I’m pretty much jumping for joy, getting excited for this game [Friday] and then the first road trip is on Monday, which is really cool,” said Law, the most heralded of the freshmen.

This isn’t some sort of manufactured optimism stemming from the rah-rah nature of Northwestern’s athletic program. There’s proof to believe this program should expect to play beyond the Big Ten tournament.

Last season, Chris Collins and his staff shocked the Big Ten by guiding a roster low on talent to six conference victories. That included a road win over a Wisconsin team that was a 15-foot jumper away from playing for the national title. The Wildcats also beat tournament-bound Iowa in the conference tournament.

If it weren’t for a 7-6 record in nonconference play, Northwestern very well could have made the postseason.

The point? It’s a better team with many more offensive weapons. Against Northwestern last year, opponents could play heavy help-side defense with Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb and Demps the only true scoring threats.

Cobb and Demps return. Junior center Alex Olah was arguably the most-improved player in the Big Ten last season. The team adds a capable scorer in Law and a bona fide point guard in McIntosh.

“What I kind of like is I think we have some options,” Collins said. “I really think we’re going to be the kind of team where on given nights, different guys play well.”

The freshman will have nights when they look their age. But they will be others when their talent shows. Come March, the freshmen should look much like sophomores.

That still might not be good enough to get this program its first NCAA-tournament bid. But it’s likely by the end of March, the program finally will be knocking on that door.

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen

ROSTER

0 Johnnie Vassar G 6-0 Fr.

3 Dave Sobolewski G 6-1 Sr.

4 Vic Law F 6-7 Fr.

14 Tre Demps G 6-3 RS Jr.

20 Scottie Lindsey G/F 6-5 Fr.

21 Nick Segura F 6-6 Fr.

22 Alex Olah C 7-0 Jr.

23 JerShon Cobb G 6-5 RS Sr.

30 Bryant McIntosh G 6-3 Fr.

32 Nate Taphorn F 6-7 So.

34 Sanjay Lumpkin G/F 6-6 RS So.

44 Gavin Skelly F 6-8 Fr.

50 Jeremiah Kreisberg C 6-10 GS

SCHEDULE

Nov. 7 Houston Baptist 7 p.m.

Nov. 17 at Brown 6 p.m.

Nov. 20 North Florida 7 p.m.

Nov. 22 Elon TBA

Nov. 25* Miami (Ohio) 8:30 p.m.

Nov. 26* Va. Tech/N. Iowa 6/8:30

Dec. 3 Georgia Tech 8:15 p.m.

Dec. 6 at Butler 3:30 p.m.

Dec. 14 Miss. Valley State 5 p.m.

Dec. 17 Central Michigan 7 p.m.

Dec. 20 Western Michigan 2 p.m.

Dec. 22 UIC 1 p.m.

Dec. 27 Northern Kentucky TBA

Dec. 30 at Rutgers 11 a.m.

Jan. 4 Wisconsin 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 11 at Michigan State TBA

Jan. 14 Illinois 8 p.m.

Jan. 17 at Michigan 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 22 Ohio State 6 p.m.

Jan. 25 at Maryland 6:30 p.m.

Jan. 31 Purdue 5 p.m.

Feb. 3 at Nebraska 6:30 p.m.

Feb. 7 at Wisconsin 4:30 p.m.

Feb. 10 Michigan State 6 p.m.

Feb. 15 Iowa 2 p.m.

Feb. 18 at Minnesota 8 p.m.

Feb. 21 Penn State 2 p.m.

Feb. 25 Indiana 6 p.m.

Feb. 28 at Illinois 6 p.m.

March 3 Michigan 8 p.m.

March 7 at Iowa TBA

March 11-15 Big Ten Tournament at United Center

* Puerto Aventuras, Mexico

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