'Cats basketball is back! With Northwestern's season commencing on Friday against Merrimack, the NBN Sports stable of writers has written up a quick primer on all things men's basketball, from the history of the program to the magical 2016-17 season and a rundown of today's squad. To all first-years not yet accustomed to the joy and pain of following NU sports: beware, it hasn't been pretty.
Big Ten Preview
By Jacob Munoz, Sports Editor
The 2018-19 season saw the Big Ten headline college basketball as the country’s premier conference. Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue made waves as they each contended for both a conference title and a national championship. While some star players from the conference have moved on — including Purdue’s Carsen Edwards and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ — others remain and will lead their teams in the spotlight, namely Michigan State’s Cassius Winston.
The Spartans are the 2019-2020 preseason favorite, ranked No. 1 in both the Associated Press and the Coaches Poll, and will look to seal the deal after coming up just short in last season’s Final Four. Watch out for them, even after their opening loss to No. 2 Kentucky on Tuesday. Other Big Ten teams ranked high in the two polls are Maryland, which returns Anthony Cowan Jr., and Ohio State, featuring brothers Kaleb and Andre Wesson.
Northwestern, on the other hand, is unfortunately poised to be a heavy underdog in the conference following the departure of Vic Law and Dererk Pardon. The development of the newer players will likely be through trial by fire. Nebraska will be an interesting team to watch: they had a surprising run in the 2019 conference tournament as a low-ranked opponent but return just one player who saw minutes for the Huskers. Their new head coach, Fred Hoiberg, had success leading Iowa State but also experienced a rough recent stretch with the Chicago Bulls.
History in Brief
By Yurui Wu, Writer
Let’s all admit it: hearing “Northwestern Wildcats basketball” probably won’t excite an average college basketball fan. Since their inaugural season in 1904, the men’s basketball team hasn’t had many shining moments other than its 2017 NCAA Tournament run.
Joining the Big Ten conference in 1917, the Wildcats have won a grand total of two Big Ten regular season championships, both in the early 1930s. The last time they finished top three in the conference? Chicago basketball icon Michael Jordan was a 5-year-old and Lyndon Johnson was the President. According to Sports Reference, for the 50 seasons since then, Northwestern has had only one winning season in the Big Ten with the magical 2016-17 squad. They made a semi-final appearance in the Big Ten Tournament that year and won their first-ever NCAA Tournament game.
Nationally, since the origin of the AP poll in 1950, Northwestern has ranked among the top 25 for a total of 15 weeks. The highest they’ve ever been ranked in recent history was No.19 in Week One of the 2017-18 season. The team has had four All-American players in its history, with the most recent being Evan Eschmeyer in 1999. The center went on to play 153 games in the NBA, per RealGM.com. The last Northwestern alum who appeared in the NBA is Reggie Hearn; the guard played three games for the Detroit Pistons in the 2017-18 season.
By Augusta Saraiva, Managing Editor
First designed to be a big enough space that could fit the entire Northwestern student body, Welsh-Ryan was inaugurated in 1952 as the McGaw Memorial Hall. Initially conceived as a replacement for Patten Gymnasium, located on the north side of campus, it was built to host men’s basketball and now serves as Northwestern’s stadium for basketball, volleyball, and wrestling. The 13,000-seat arena, which has welcomed big names such as then-President Dwight Eisenhower, was renewed for the first time in 1984. Although the McGaw Hall kept its name, the main arena — you’re right, Welsh-Ryan — received the name of the transformation’s main donors: Robert J. Welsh Sr. and his wife Catherine.
The last renovation, which occurred during the 2018-2019 season, was made possible by the Ryan heirs, Patrick Ryan (’59) and Shirley Welsh Ryan (’61). Recipients of the Northwestern Alumni Association’s Medal of Honor, the donors injected $110 million to turn the building into a world-class facility. After a 19-month transformation, Welsh-Ryan now challenges for the title of the most accessible college athletics facility in the country.
Renovations completed during the 2018-19 season brought plenty of changes for student-athlete accommodations, including new locker rooms, lounges, and private training facilities. Spectators benefit from revamped concessions outposts, improved and increased bathrooms, and easy access to seating across the arena. The building’s lobby, bathed in a pristine white cover, is populated by a monitor depicting the Northwestern Athletic Hall of Fame. Despite fans having to suffer through bus trips to Allstate Arena for a season, it appears as if Welsh-Ryan has firmly cemented itself, along with other recently-renovated Northwestern athletics buildings, as a state-of-the-art facility on par with that of other blue blood programs.
Northwestern’s 2016-17 season
By Jono Zarrilli, Assistant Sports Editor
Ahh, the good old days. After ending 2015-16 with a program-record 20 wins, Northwestern entered 2016-17 with a cautious optimism that the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament run was in the cards. With a core of Vic Law, Dererk Pardon, Scottie Lindsey, Sanjay Lumpkin and Bryant McIntosh, head coach Chris Collins made the impossible happen.
The Wildcats earned their first quality win in demolishing No. 22 Texas, 77-58, in the Legends Classic on November 21 at the Barclays Center; however, the win was sandwiched by two tough losses to Butler and Notre Dame by a combined six points. The ‘Cats won the remainder of their non-conference slate to enter the Big Ten regular season with a strong 11-2 record.
Scottie Lindsey exploded for 31 points in the Big Ten opener, a road win at Penn State. After a couple tough losses to Michigan State and Minnesota, Northwestern went on a six-game winning streak with marquee wins over Iowa, Ohio State, and Indiana. The streak earned Northwestern a top-25 ranking by the end of January.
The rest of the Big Ten slate was rocky: the Wildcats went 3-6 to finish with a 10-8 conference record. However, they made their wins count: one was a road win at No. 7 Wisconsin, and the other was “The Game.” On the bubble of the Tournament on March 1, 2017, Northwestern shocked Michigan with a last-second full-court heave from Nathan Taphorn to Pardon.
After this play, it seemed like destiny that Northwestern would make the Tournament, and they started to attract national headlines as a potential Cinderella team. Two wins in the Big Ten Tournament — over Rutgers and No. 25 Maryland — were enough to overcome an embarrassing loss to Wisconsin in the semifinals, and the ‘Cats earned an 8 seed in the Big Dance.
The magic did not stop there. In the First Round in Salt Lake City, Northwestern faced Vanderbilt. At the end of a closely contested game, the Wildcats got lucky: with Vanderbilt leading 66-65 in the final minute, Commodores star Matthew Fisher-Davis fouled McIntosh, thinking that his team was trailing. The foul enabled McIntosh to sink the go-ahead free throws in a 68-66 Northwestern win.
What goes around, comes around, however. In the Second Round against 1-seed Gonzaga, the ‘Cats fought valiantly, cutting a 22-point deficit to five with under five minutes remaining. Then, officials inexplicably missed an egregious goaltend by a Gonzaga defender, leading to the end of Northwestern’s season. Gonzaga went on to lose in the National Championship game to North Carolina. Days later, NU students hung the following banner up on the arch:
Overall, Northwestern went 24-12 and became one of the most prominent stories in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. From there, well, it has been downhill.
Coach Chris Collins
By Jack McKessy, Writer
Under the coaching of Chris Collins, the Northwestern basketball program has reached a level of success it had not seen in years.
Before the university named Collins its coach in 2013, there had not been a Northwestern basketball coach with a winning record since Arthur “Dutch” Lonborg departed the program in 1950. The program was the only Power Five school to never have made the NCAA Tournament, and it hadn’t won the Big Ten since 1933.
Though Collins is still chasing that Big Ten title, his résumé is impressive.
He played guard at Duke in the early ‘90s, where he made the All-ACC rookie team as a freshman and led the ACC in three-pointers in his sophomore year. As a captain his senior year, Collins was named to the All-ACC Second Team and awarded a trophy for being Duke’s MVP.
After a brief playing career overseas and stints as assistant coaches for the WNBA’s Detroit Shock and Seton Hall’s men’s basketball team, Collins returned to Duke as an assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski in 2000. He won two national championships there before leaving for Northwestern in 2013.
Collins inherited a Wildcats team coming off a 13-19 season, finishing second-to-last in the Big Ten. By his third year, the ‘Cats had a winning record. In his fourth, Northwestern went 24-12 and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history, and they won their first game against Vanderbilt before falling to No. 4 overall seed Gonzaga in the Round of 32.
Only time will tell how Collins will perform in his seventh year at Northwestern following back-to-back losing seasons, but he has already cemented his place in Northwestern men’s basketball history.
State of the roster
By Shreyas Iyer, Sports Editor
This is the part of the primer where ‘Cats fans may want to look away. The state of the team, from a pure talent perspective, is dangerously close to hitting a nadir under Coach Chris Collins. From last year’s squad, Northwestern lost the core of the team in Vic Law and Dererk Pardon to the professional game, with disappointing center Barrett Benson, senior point guard Jordan Ash and oft-injured forward Aaron Falzon all departing for greener pastures. Given the massive exodus of talent, Northwestern’s cupboard of returning players is looking a little bare compared to previous seasons. In years’ past, Northwestern could rely on Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Pardon, and Law on offense; they served as safety valves whenever the offense sputtered. Time will tell who will step up to take on that role for a younger, more athletic squad.
A year after a massive hole at point guard effectively ended Northwestern’s chance to even be competitive beyond early January, first-year Boo Buie is next man up for the Wildcats. He will share ball-handling duties with returners AJ Turner and Anthony Gaines. Sophomores Pete Nance and Miller Kopp, two of Northwestern’s highest-rated recruits in program history, will attempt to build off inconsistent freshman seasons to become Northwestern’s focal points for the future. Ryan Greer projects to playing time at the point, while Ryan Young steps out of his redshirt to compete with first-year Jared Jones for minutes at center.
If none of the players I just mentioned ring any bells, you’re not alone; it’s clear that Collins will have to rely on little-known underclassmen in key spots this season. First-year Robbie Beran and graduate transfer Pat Spencer round out the ten-man lineup. Beran, a highly-touted forward, appears at first glance to be a Pete Nance clone as a skinny stretch-4. He will certainly get minutes for a frontcourt with no penciled-in star. Spencer showed off his hops and agility against Quincy, but it remains to be seen how he’ll perform against Big Ten competition.
In all, this is a fairly young team that will need to integrate new faces, especially in the frontcourt. How Coach Collins will toggle his lineups will be a focus point for the start of the season.