Well, folks, it's time. Men’s Basketball kicks off Monday, Nov. 6, and fans are excited. For those of you who missed it, last year the underrated Wildcats (22-12, 12-8 B1G) were one of the best teams in the Big Ten, punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament and walking away with their second March Madness win in program history. Although the team lost some big names last year, namely guard Chase Audige, last year’s Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Year, the expectations for the ’Cats are high this year. We took a look at the roster to see if the hype is worth it.
The Main Attraction
Fifth-year guard Boo Buie is likely the most well-known athlete on campus, and for good reason. Buie comes off of a season where he averaged 17.3 points and 4.5 assists per game, earning All-Big Ten Second Team honors and national recognition for leading Northwestern to relevancy on college basketball. At 6 '2'’ and 180 pounds, he uses his shiftiness to get past defenders, moving downhill to dish it out or take it himself.
Buie will continue to lead this year's team. This past March Madness run provided Buie with plenty of time in the limelight. Now, look for the seasoned veteran to continue his success. Buie may also improve his scoring efficiency on fewer shots. Last year Buie shot 40.6% from the field and was tasked with the bulk of Northwestern’s scoring. However, the development of multiple scorers could allow him to focus more on playmaking.
The Supporting Cast
Three breakout players to watch are fourth-year center Matthew Nicholson, fourth-year guard Ty Berry and third-year forward Brooks Barnhizer. Last year, the three were each top 20 defensive rating in the Big Ten – 7th, 12th and 16th, respectively – and showed potential to be off-ball scorers. Barnhizer, who came off the bench last year, will look to fill a similar role that former guard Chase Audige played last year for the ’Cats. Barnhizer plays lockdown defense and also compliments Buie in the half-court setting. While Berry could certainly improve upon last year’s shooting splits, where he shot 34% from the field and 29% from three, his confidence and streaky nature could lead to some big buckets down the road. Nicholson was one of the best interior defenders in the Big Ten last year – ranked third amongst centers in defensive rating – and will continue to hold down the fort for the ‘Cats down low.
Additionally, graduate transfer guard Ryan Langborg may make an immediate impact for the Wildcats. Langborg played four years at Princeton and burst onto the national scene last March, when he led the 15-seed Tigers on an improbable run to the Sweet 16, upsetting 2-seed Arizona in the process. A reliable scorer and playmaker, Langborg could prove to be an excellent compliment to Buie.
This team has some candidates that may make a name for themselves this year. Northwestern landed an intriguing transfer this offseason: second-year guard Justin Mullins. Mullins hails from the University of Denver, where he averaged 9.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game, all on 51.8% shooting from the field and 36.5% from three. Even when accounting for the relatively weak competition he faced, Mullins is an exciting addition to the Wildcats and should provide meaningful minutes off the bench. Finally, a dark horse player to watch is first-year Jordan Clarkson. A three-star recruit out of Medford, Massachusetts, the young guard is crafty, athletic and could prove to be a spark plug off the bench.
The Bottom Line
This team has all the makings to run it back and make a serious March Madness run this year. Sure, there are holes: the three-point shooting isn’t great, big-man depth could be better and the starting five will likely be smaller than the competition’s, but what this team lacks can be made up for in experience. Almost all players mentioned know what it’s like to play in the spotlight. Last year proved that no matter when they are counted out, the ’Cats find a way to prevail. This could be another exciting year of hoops in Evanston.
Thumbnail by AJ Anderson/North by Northwestern.