The 'Cats are back – well, most of them.
Head coach Chris Collins and his squad return after the program’s fourth straight losing season, going 15-16, 7-13 in the B1G and losing to Iowa in the second round of the conference tournament.
The major difference between this year’s team and last year’s is that a lot of players, especially depth players, are now gone. Key reserves Ryan Greer and Elyjah Williams graduated, and young wing Casey Simmons left via the transfer portal.
Speaking of transfers, this article would be incomplete without mentioning star forward Pete Nance’s transfer to North Carolina. Nance was a mainstay of the Wildcats throughout his four years with the program, finding playing time every year and growing into a leader on and off the court. He led the team last year in scoring and rebounds, and was also the team’s most accurate shooter from outside. This is obviously a blow to the Northwestern roster, but teams lose their best player all the time–it’s part of the nature of college sports.
What makes Nance’s absence even harder to swallow for fans is that the man who would’ve presumably taken the starting center role this year, Ryan Young, is also gone. Young transferred to Duke last April, taking his experience with him. Despite coming off the bench, Young was a crucial presence on the team last year, averaging the third most rebounds on the team, the fourth most points, and shooting the best among players who appeared in at least half of the team’s games last year. When Nance was out with injury while playing center, Young stepped up and led the team in scoring in the upset win against ranked Michigan State, showing a flash of what he could have become if given the chance to start.
In sheer number of players, the Wildcats were able to recoup their losses, bringing in three recruited players, one walk-on and one graduate transfer to round out the roster. Recruits Nick Martinelli and Blake Smith both bring guard skill sets at small forward heights. Recruit Luke Hunger and walk-on Gus Hurlburt are both first-years who could play at the power forward or center positions. Graduate transfer Tydus Verhoeven is an especially unique player. Standing at six foot nine and 235 pounds, Verhoeven led U-Texas El Paso in blocks per game. His defensive prowess and frame makes him a good candidate to fill-in when senior forward Robbie Beran isn’t playing. None of these players are likely to make the starting lineup to open the season, but all could be important pieces of the rotation.
Despite the large amount of turnover on the roster, the returning players will be the most important for the team moving forward. The biggest players being…
Buie played a big role for the team last year, and with the departures of Nance and Young, the load on his shoulders has become much larger. Buie was the team’s second highest scorer behind Nance, making him the highest scoring returner. He’s also top five in scoring average among B1G returning players, and he will have to live up to that expectation as the engine of the offense this year. As the starting point guard, he will not only have to worry about scoring but also handle the majority of ball handling and passing duties. Thankfully, it’s a role he’s used to, but he’ll need to take a step up in consistency to keep this team afloat. Buie shot just under 40% on the year, a tough number to stomach and much tougher if he’s to be relied upon as the first offensive option. He also played six conference games where he scored eleven points or less. Northwestern lost all of those games. Buie will have more responsibility on his plate this year. How he handles it will be a big factor in how the season goes.
Boo Buie won’t be alone in handling the scoring load. Chase Audige scored the third most per game among Wildcats last season, and has the potential to accomplish much more. Audige led Northwestern in scoring back in the 2020-21 season, but spent last year’s campaign returning from a hip injury, which could explain the drop off. He also brings much-needed experience and versatility to the wing spot on the team, as his ability to play either the shooting guard or small forward positions, combined with him being one of the best perimeter defenders on the roster, will ensure he gets a lion’s share of minutes in lineups. Audige’s scoring totals last year were up-and-down, but if he’s fully healthy, he will be a marquee player for the 'Cats.
Matt Nicholson isn’t as much of a household name among fans as Buie or Audige, but this year he’ll have the opportunity to become one. The loss of both Pete Nance and Ryan Young has catapulted Nicholson into being the projected starting center for the team this year. This would be a big step up for someone who played in just 15 games last season and still has yet to make his first collegiate start, but that doesn’t quite mean Nicholson isn’t ready. The junior weighs in at seven feet tall and 255 pounds, more than big enough to handle the physicality of opposing B1G centers. He also has sat for good reason – being behind Young and Nance, who were both standout players for NU last year and then moved on to play for two of the nation’s most prestigious and successful college basketball programs. Nicholson is big enough to step into these shoes, and has spent the past two years learning from two of the best. Because we have yet to see much of him, Nicholson is a bit of a wildcard, but he’s far from unworthy of the job.
Northwestern men’s basketball comes into the year with a lot of questions: will the scoring hole left by Nance be able to be filled? How will Matt Nicholson play assuming the starting center spot? How will the new-look bench play without veteran presences like Greer and Williams? The answers to these questions will make all the difference.