EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern’s season began Friday with an easy, 89-52 victory in an exhibition matchup against Illinois-Springfield. Freshman guard Isiah Brown led the way with 18 points in 23 minutes of action while four other Wildcats scored in double figures.
“Definitely excited to be back on the floor,” coach Chris Collins said. “Anytime you play the first game, you’re going to fight some jitters.”
You never want to read too deeply into a game that doesn’t matter against a struggling Division II program, but here are a few takeaways from Friday’s performance.
1. Isiah Brown is Northwestern’s best bet at backup point guard
While Bryant McIntosh will be one of the Big Ten’s top point guards, his backup has been one of the team’s biggest question marks this preseason. Brown has been the frontrunner ahead of sophomore Jordan Ash, and that was confirmed in Friday’s exhibition.
While Ash appeared overwhelmed running the offense, Brown went for 9 points on 3-of-3 shooting with one assist in the first half. His only blunder on offense was a fastbreak pass to McIntosh that got tipped away for a turnover.
“Certainly Isiah’s ability to score the ball is going to be huge for this team,” Collins said. “He has a knack for putting it in the basket. He’s going to be an incredible weapon for us on this team.”
Brown made an icy hesitation move to get to the basket for a transition layup. He also drained a pull-up jumper and a high-arcing three from the left corner.
Ash had one assist and two turnovers in four first-half minutes. He appeared slightly more settled in during the second half but still made some poor mistakes, like carrying the ball even without much defensive pressure. He finished with two points, two assists and three turnovers.
Brown finally missed a few shots in the second half but had a nice offensive rebound and putback off a missed jumper. He finished with a team-high 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting. The little guy also had three rebounds and took a charge in the final minute of a 37-point game.
“I’ve been looking forward to this day for so long,” Brown said afterwards. “I couldn’t sleep last night.”
Brown said McIntosh has been a crucial piece of getting him adjusted to college.
“He’s been like a big brother to me since I got here this summer,” Brown said. “On and off the court he’s telling me what to do, what not to do.”
2. Vic Law started rusty but looked all polished up by night’s end.
Law got the starting nod for his first game back from uniform.
He began by missing a pair of jump shots and committing two early fouls. Later in the first half, he intercepted a pass at halfcourt and took it all the way for an uncontested, two-handed dunk for his only field goal of the first half.
Law missed his first five shots of the second half, all of which were jump shots, but then caught fire with two three’s and a mid-range jumper. He finished the evening with 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting along with three rebounds.
“Any time you haven’t played for a year, you can only imagine what’s going through his mind,” Collins said. “He was a little jittery, a little nervous. I thought he broke out of it there at the end. Hopefully that will be a springboard of what’s to come.”
I’ll give Law the benefit of the doubt for now and attribute the early struggles to rust after not playing a game since last summer’s France trip. Northwestern needs him to shoot better this season if the team will be successful in the Big Ten.
3. Dererk Pardon had a solid start, but suffered a minor injury.
Pardon will be thrown into the fire this year as a 6’8″ sophomore starting at center for a Big Ten program. The Ohio native put up 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting before leaving the game with a leg injury.
Pardon appeared to hurt his leg early in the second and went into the tunnel with a noticeable limp. He returned a few minutes later, but limped to the bench grabbing his left hamstring after converting a transition layup with 10:12 left.
Collins said Pardon was kneed in the thigh and it tightened up again when he returned to the floor. The big fella could have returned, but Collins did not want to push him in an exhibition matchup. So expect Pardon to start the season opener next Friday against Mississippi Valley State.
4. Who will be the go-to scorers late in the clock?
This is a bit of a throwaway question because Northwestern’s average possession lasted 13 seconds and the shot clock never dropped below five.
Last season, Tre Demps, and sometimes McIntosh, were the go-to scorers last season when the offense stalled and the clock was winding down. McIntosh is back, of course, but Demps is not. And the Wildcats could really use a second quality option for these situations, as they had last year.
Brown held up his reputation as a scorer, but we’ll se if he can perform as well against Division I competition. Law freed himself up for a handful of open looks, but even with a strong finish to Friday’s game he shot 3-of-10 on jumpers.
5. Season outlook
The exhibition doesn’t change much of how I project Northwestern this season. Brown was a bit better than expected, Law was a bit worse. And again, this was a single, 40-minute sample of a game that didn’t matter, so take it all with many grains of salt and any other condiments you can think of.
All in all, this team seems to be who most people thought they would be all offseason. I’m sticking with my prediction of 17-14, 7-11 in the Big Ten for now.