By Josh Wasserman

Northwestern basketball is back in just two days, as the Wildcats have their first exhibition game of the season on Thursday against Quincy University. Though NU saw only minimal improvement in terms of record from the 2013-14 season to 2014-15, no vital player graduated last June, and some key returners are back to make a statement about Northwestern basketball in the Big Ten.

The Lifebloods: Tre Demps, SG, Redshirt Senior and Alex Olah, C, Senior

We’ll put the obvious two together in one category of which “lifeblood” captures the idea. Demps and Olah, two of the team’s three captains, are the core of this team, and coach Chris Collins will look to them as the main sources of production offensively. Demps garnered All Big-Ten honorable mention last season after leading the Wildcats in scoring and three-point shooting, and he will likely continue to be the team’s primary scorer again.

7-foot Olah works down low for Northwestern and is the team’s top rebounder and shot-blocker (he brought down almost 70 more boards and blocked nearly 50 more shots last season than the next highest player). For a few years he had provided Northwestern’s only presence in the paint, leaving the Wildcats vulnerable to teams with physical big men tandems. Now, Olah has Virginia Tech transfer Joey van Zegeren to work along with him, which takes a lot of pressure off of Olah’s shoulders in terms of rebounds, blocks and minutes. Olah has shown an upward trend over his college career in all applicable categories for post players, and should he reach the apex of his performance this season, the Wildcats will have the foundation they need to stun some Big Ten heavyweights.

The Facilitator: Bryant McIntosh, PG, Sophomore

Last year, McIntosh was certainly Northwestern’s best freshman in a year with multiple promising ones. Given the starting job at point guard from the outset of his first college campaign, the Indiana native dazzled game in and game out, compiling averages of 11.4 points, 4.7 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game before fading due to fatigue by season’s end. He was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team, which also included No. 2 overall 2015 NBA draft pick, Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell, and 2015-16 Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, Maryland’s Melo Trimble.

McIntosh is the fulcrum of Northwestern’s offense (he actually had a better assist-to-turnover ratio than both Russell and Trimble), but he needs to improve on the defensive end, as he tallied only eight steals in 1066 minutes. He’s integral to Northwestern’s success on offense, but if he can clamp down defensively, the Wildcats’ already stout defense will gain a huge boost.

The Fifth Man: Vic Law, SF, Sophomore

The NBA award goes to the Sixth Man of the Year, but the guy who rounds out the starting five is even more important. Due to injuries and a general dearth of big men last season, Law saw significant time on the court and was fairly impressive in his minutes. Despite being only 6’7″, he corralled almost five boards per game and added a perimeter threat as well making 44 percent of his long-range attempts in Big Ten play, good for No. 5 in the conference ahead of Demps. The top recruit was solid in all facets of the game last year, and this year he will need to keep up his jack-of-all-trades style of play. A reliable season out of Law will go a long way for this Wildcats team.