Big Ten Preview Part VI: Key Questions For Northwestern & Purdue

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 8th, 2017

With the season just a few days away, Rush the Court’s Big Ten preview will tip off its coverage by posing season-defining key questions for each team. Today we address Wisconsin and Michigan.

#4 Northwestern – Can the Wildcats’ offense take another step forward?

Chris Collins hopes to improve on last season’s historic campaign. (Getty Images)

Here’s what we know about Northwestern heading into 2017-18: it’s experienced, well-coached and should be darn stingy on defense. What we don’t know is whether the Wildcats, fresh off their first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history, can improve enough offensively to become the top-tier Big Ten contender everyone expects them to be. But there is reason to expect an upswing in production. Already one of the least turnover-prone units in the country (16% TO rate), Northwestern welcomes back the Big Ten’s most experienced — and productive — starting backcourt in Bryant McIntosh (14.8 PPG, 5.2 APG) and Scottie Lindsey (14.1 PPG), a pair of preseason all-conference honorees. While neither is a great outside shooter, both players are very effective from inside the arc and at the free throw line (87% FT and 84% FT, respectively). What’s more, 6’8″ forward Aaron Falzon returns this season after missing most of 2016-17 to knee surgery. His three-point shooting ability (35.5% 3FG) alongside Vic Law (12.3 PPG) — the team’s best returning perimeter shooter, defender and overall athlete — should give head coach Chris Collins plenty of depth and versatility at the wing position. Throw in one of the league’s top offensive rebounders in Dererk Pardon (12.1% OReb rate) and you’re suddenly looking at a roster that can stretch the floor, limits miscues, maximizes its opportunities to score, and makes the most of its trips to the free throw line. In other words, you’re looking at all the makings of an efficient offense. After scoring less than a point per possession in eight of their 12 losses a year ago, the Wildcats need to realize that potential this year if they’re to truly compete for a league title.

#3 Purdue – No Biggie, no problem?

Despite losing Caleb Swanigan, Purdue has plenty of promise in 2017-18. (Alex Kumar, Purdue Exponent)

It’s not often a team loses its best player — much less the Big Ten Player of the Year — and finds itself right back in position to compete for another conference title. But that’s exactly where Purdue is in heading into this season. Despite departing with Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan, the conference’s top rebounder (12.6 PPG) and second-leading scorer (18.5 PPG), the Boilermakers return nearly everyone else from last year’s championship squad, including four seniors and a point guard who is raring to break out. Those seniors include two sharpshooting guards (PJ Thompson and Dakota Matthias), preseason all-conference pick Vince Edwards (12.6 PPG), and 7’2″ center Isaac Haas, who scored a ridiculous 12.6 points in just 19.5 minutes per game last season. The point guard? That would be Carsen Edwards, an electrifying sophomore who put his potential on full display during the World University Games this summer. With a promising (if not deep) supporting cast to match, head coach Matt Painter has all the pieces necessary for a return trip to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond. Then again, serious questions remain. Swanigan’s dominance on the defensive glass (32.7% DReb rate) was instrumental in limiting opponents’ second-chance points last season. Few players drew fouls at the rate he did. Just as his perimeter shooting (44.7% 3FG) would stretch out defenses, Swanigan’s size and strength in the post would demand that opponents’ collapse the paint around him. There’s a reason Purdue ranked seventh nationally in three-point percentage last season, and it’s not just because of those pinpoint guards: Biggie’s knack for sucking in defenders only to dish back out to open shooters was virtually unmatched among players of his stature. Can the Boilermakers thrive without their beastly big man? Absolutely. Would it be surprising if they take a small step back? Not at all. Regardless of where they finish, it’s a testament to Painter’s program that the loss of Swanigan hardly lowers its ceiling.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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