EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Finally free of that NCAA Tournament albatross, Northwestern comes into the season with something else hovering over the team.
That would be high expectations.
“It’s something that we’ve never encountered and we’re excited to see how we’ll handle that attention,” star guard Bryant McIntosh said.
The school that hosted the first Final Four finally got to experience an NCAA appearance last season. And with most of their top players back, the Wildcats are out to show that was no aberration. While challenging for the Big Ten championship might be a stretch, Northwestern comes into its fifth season under coach Chris Collins with an experienced roster and an appetite for more.
“What happened was great,” Collins said. “It was a great experience, a great group of guys that accomplished a lot. But now, it’s a new journey. It’s a new team. Guys have gotten better.”
The Wildcats have most of their key players back from a team that won 24 games and squeezed past Vanderbilt in their first NCAA appearance. A six-point loss to eventual runner-up Gonzaga that featured a big comeback by Northwestern and a crushing technical on Collins after the officials missed a goaltend by the Zags ended that run.
But the standards are higher than ever for Northwestern. The school rewarded Collins, extending his contract through the 2024-25 season.
Some things to know as the Wildcats try to make it back-to-back NCAA appearances, starting with the season opener against Loyola (Md.) on Nov. 10:
Collins hopes the crowds that started to fill Welsh-Ryan Arena late last season will make the trip to Allstate Arena in Rosemont. The Wildcats will be playing home games about 15 miles from campus while their arena undergoes a major renovation. The school is replacing wooden bleachers with chair-back seats, updating audio and video systems, adding premium seating and widening concourses as part of a $110 million overhaul of the arena. Work is scheduled to be completed next fall. For now, the building is basically a shell with steel beams exposed and busted-open exterior walls. A $20 million facility for men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and other programs that will be built inside an existing adjacent building is expected to open in late 2018 or 2019.
“Every time I drive past there or walk past it, it’s kind of surreal to see what’s going on — but exciting at the same time because what we have coming is going to be a program changer in terms of the resources, the facilities,” said Collins, a Chicago-area native. “(It’s) something that I know was a long time coming. We’re really excited about the end result.”
The Wildcats have their top five scorers back from last season, and they have a pair of preseason all-Big Ten guards in McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey. They were one-two in scoring for Northwestern last year, averaging 14.8 and 14.1 points, respectively. McIntosh also averaged 5.2 assists to tie for the Big Ten lead.
The Wildcats are also well-stocked up front, led by forward Vic Law. The Wildcats’ third-leading scoring and second-leading rebounder, he made the Big Ten’s all-defensive team. Dererk Pardon is also back after ranking second in the conference in field goal percentage (.611), fourth in blocks (1.8 per game) and seventh in rebounding (8.0 rpg).
Northwestern could get a boost with forward Aaron Falzon back from a season-ending knee injury. He played in just three games a year ago after a promising freshman season. Falzon hit 63 3-pointers two years ago — the second most by a Northwestern freshman.
“It was definitely a different experience for me watching the guys out there,” Falzon said. “But I think it helped me. It helped me mature. The game slowed down a little bit because I got to watch from the sidelines a little bit more. It was an interesting experience.”
The Wildcats will play three games in six days during a busy early-season stretch, when they visit Georgia Tech (Nov. 28), host Illinois (Dec. 1) and play at Purdue (Dec. 3). They also have non-conference games against Creighton at home (Nov. 15), Texas Tech or Boston College in Uncasville, Conn. (Nov. 19) and at Oklahoma (Dec. 22).