Throughout the preseason, the Big Ten microsite will be rolling out these featured breakdowns of each of the 12 league schools. Today’s release is the Northwestern Wildcats.
Where we left off: The NIT. Again. For yet another year, Northwestern inched closer to the NCAA Tournament — this year closer than ever — and the Wildcats fell short again. NU’s season was defined by close losses to Michigan (twice), Ohio State, Indiana and Illinois. Had the Cats won just one more of those games, they could have potentially made the Tournament. Heck, if they had just beaten Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament — another close loss — maybe they could have gotten there. Now, with a number of new faces, they begin this season firmly on the bubble once again.
Positives: I did an interview with coach Bill Carmody earlier in the offseason and he remarked that, with its new lineup, NU will “have some scoring inside.” That will be a much-needed addition after last year’s centers — Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti — struggled mightily. This year, 7’0″ freshman Alex Olah is expected to start at center and the Wildcats will also have 7’2″ freshman center Chier Ajou, who provides depth, even if he doesn’t play much initially. Additionally, senior Drew Crawford returns and Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire is expected to make a big impact right away. It will be a very big frontcourt for NU, something that has seemingly happened overnight and hasn’t occurred in Evanston for a long time.
Negatives: Can this team play defense? The Wildcats have added a lot of potential inside scoring with Swopshire and Olah, but the jury is out on whether the team can defend and grab rebounds, unlike last year’s squad. The perimeter defense is questionable, as well, as the team’s best perimeter defender — JerShon Cobb — was suspended for the year. And can this team find someone to take the last shot? Last year it was Crawford, and even though that didn’t work very well, this year it seems likely to be either Crawford or Swopshire. The Big Ten will be very strong again this year, meaning NU will be involved in a lot of close games. It must find a way to make big shots and play good defense in crunch time.