FRTS: After starting the season in the top 25, what has contributed to the disappointing start to the season for Northwestern? Are NW fans concerned or are they chalking it up to just a couple early games against tough opponents?
First of all, we go by NU. Learn that one and NEVER FORGET IT. To answer your question, there have been a multitude of factors that have contributed to this season's tough start. The two big, important things this team is lacking right now are defense and depth.
Northwestern has been allowing teams to shoot the lights out all season and has barely forced any turnovers, which is a bad combination. The defensive struggles were the main reason why Northwestern struggled to put away a couple of bad mid-majors to start the season, and it resulted in a loss as soon as the Wildcats played a real team. NU didn't have any issue scoring against Creighton, but allowed the Bluejays to shoot 52 percent on twos and 50 percent from deep in that fast-paced 92-88 loss. That wasn't even nearly the worst defensive performance of the season for the Cats. Texas Tech shot SIXTY percent from the floor (10/19 from deep) and scored 1.27 points per possession against NU. In that one, the offense also vanished, turning the ball over 15 times in the first half, and the end result was an 85-49 loss.
Looking ahead at your next question, I'll wait to address the depth issues. But as far as the mood of the fanbase, I'd say there is definitely a good amount of concern. Northwestern just hasn't looked like an NCAA Tournament team thus far this season, and that was the bare minimum expectation for this team coming off of last year's historic season and bringing nearly everyone back. The Texas Tech game in particular caused some people to freak out, and understandably. Top-25 teams aren't supposed to be down by 41 points in the second half of neutral site games. However, it's not full panic mode just yet. That game was NU's fifth in ten days, so fatigue undoubtedly played a factor, especially given the lack of bench minutes. Also, both Creighton and Texas Tech are ranked in this week's AP Poll and look like they might be really good. Northwestern still has a top four that can match up with almost anyone in the country; if it can fix the defense and depth issues, this team can still accomplish a lot.
FTRS: Northwestern ranks near the bottom of the country in bench minutes. What is the reason for the starters going so deep?
To put it simply, the starters have been going deep in games because they have to. Chris Collins essentially had five guys he trusted for the first three games of the season, and since Northwestern wasn't putting teams away early, those guys had to play big minutes down the stretch to make sure those games were wins. Collins got sharpshooting sophomore Aaron Falzon back recently, giving him six playable guys, but Northwestern absolutely needs at least one or two others to emerge as reliable options to take some pressure off of the starters. The good thing is that many of them are young, including sophomore G Isiah Brown, sophomore C Barret Benson, and freshman G/F Anthony Gaines. Those guys need to do some developing, fast.
FTRS: Who is the player that the Tech defense will need to shut down in order to get the win and who is a possible x-factor guy for Northwestern?
The good thing about having four really good upperclassmen weapons is that even if one of them gets shut down, the offense can still be successful. Senior point guard Bryant McIntosh is the guy to start with. He's been starting at NU since he was a freshman and is one of the best PGs in the Big Ten. If B-Mac gets going with his floater, outside shot, and passing arsenal, he can go off for huge games (21 career games of 20+ points). He makes this offense run and is the most important guy to try and limit if you're an opposing team. A close second is fellow senior wing Scottie Lindsey, who is NU's best shooter and scorer. He's basically a lock to hit multiple threes and score in double figures. If Scottie is hot (and he usually is), he's a lethal offensive player. Junior wing Vic Law and junior center Dererk (yes, that second r is supposed to be there) Pardon are also threats to score, but most of the defensive focus should be on McIntosh and Lindsey.
For an x-factor, I'll go with senior forward Gavin Skelly. For now, he's still the fifth starter over Falzon, but regardless of if he's starting or coming off the bench, Skelly's energy on the court is infectious. He's a very on-and-off player, but has started this season strong. Skelly can hit from deep and gives insane effort on the boards. He struggles defensively, though.
FTRS: What is Northwestern’s “identity” this season? Or are they more of a well rounded team that does a little bit of everything well?
I think Northwestern is still trying to find its identity this season. Last season, the identity was defense and toughness as the team somehow dealt with the pressure of living on the bubble of NU's first ever NCAA Tournament down the stretch. This year, both that identity and that storyline are gone. Sanjay Lumpkin, who was the heart and soul of Northwestern and its best defensive player, graduated, and the defense sorely misses him. Northwestern also barely turned the ball over last season, which hasn't been the case this year. I still think this team is very good, and I think they'll settle in as a well-rounded team before too long.
FTRS: After making the NCAA tournament for the first time, how have the Northwestern fans perspectives changed? Likewise, is the team playing more loose with that pressure no longer on their shoulder?
You'd think Northwestern fans would've just been happy with that appearance, right? We were elated of course, but it really made us hungry for more. This team played with -- and got screwed by the refs against -- the national runner-up, Gonzaga, in the Round of 32 and brought back its top five scorers. Expectations were higher in Evanston this offseason than they ever have been. I don't think the team has played looser, just because there's always pressure to succeed. Especially now that they've gotten off to a slow start and gone 0/2 against Power-6 teams, I fully expect the Cats to be locked in and play with a sense of urgency against Georgia Tech. This is a huge game for Northwestern since its resume can't afford to miss any more opportunities at a solid non-conference win.
Many thanks to Will for taking the time to answer my questions. Make sure to check out my responses to his questions over at Inside NU.