Northwestern looks to make jump in Collins' third season

Oct 27, 2015 - 5:45 PM EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) Along with the extra practices and exhibition games during Northwestern's recent trip to Spain, there were a few things center Alex Olah got to enjoy.

Seeing Real Madrid's stadium was pretty cool. So was watching his favorite team, Barcelona. And the time spent bonding with teammates could not be beat.

''We became a family,'' Olah said.

But can they become an NCAA Tournament team? Yes, it's that same old question.

The Wildcats insist they are close as they enter their third seasons under coach Chris Collins.

Several strong recruiting classes have sparked hope that Northwestern will get there soon in what would be a first for the school that hosted the first Final Four.

''I think there's a confidence in our program right now,'' said Collins, 29-36 in two seasons. ''I think there's a belief we can be a good team. I like that. And certainly my goal every year I've ever played basketball or been part of college basketball as a player or coach, has been to be in the NCAA Tournament. If that's not my goal, then I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing.''

The Wildcats have a long way to go, starting with the opener against UMass-Lowell on Nov. 13.

Their non-conference schedule includes North Carolina. But there is also a chance to build some momentum heading into Big Ten play.

With four freshmen and four sophomores, that hinges on the development of the younger players and their ability to mesh with the upper classmen. If they do, Northwestern just might make a leap after going 15-17 and finishing 6-12 in the conference last season.

Here are some things to look for this season from the Wildcats:

CLOSE CALLS: Northwestern showed some resilience late last year, winning four in a row and five of its final eight after dropping 10 straight. Six of losses during that slide were by single digits, including an overtime defeat at Michigan State. Although the perseverance and performance late in the year were encouraging, the Wildcats need to carry that over to this season. Olah, a senior, insisted the potential is there, that the talent level is the highest it has been since he arrived.

MAC IS BACK: As a freshman last season, guard Bryant McIntosh emerged as one of Northwestern's best players. The Wildcats will need more of that. McIntosh will try to build on a promising season in which he averaged 11.4 points.

LAW OF AVERAGES: A highly touted recruit, Vic Law struggled at times last season and averaged 7.0 points. But he also showed some promise in back-to-back wins against Penn State and Indiana, scoring 17 points against the Nittany Lions and 14 against the Hoosiers while hitting a combined 6 of 8 3-pointers in those games. He shot 35.5 percent from long range on the season.

SEEKING CONSISTENCY: Senior Tre Demps is back after leading Northwestern in scoring last season at 12.5 points per game. Not exactly a high average for a top scorer, but when he did come up big, the Wildcats generally won. They were 4-1 when he finished with 20 or more and 10-5 when he scored at least 15. Northwestern was 12th in the league in scoring.

BIG ADDITION: The Wildcats added some depth and experience up front in 6-foot-10 senior Joey van Zegeren, a transfer for Virginia Tech. He played in 13 games last season and was leading the Hokies in rebounding at 5.3 per game and third in scoring at 9.8 points before getting suspended for violating team rules. He is eligible to play this season and could take some pressure off Olah.

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