Northwestern players celebrate before a timeout during a game against Maryland earlier this season. The 'Cats have a talented roster and the potential to go far this year, if they can get out of their own way. Photos by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

With the new year come visions of change, or for some, just a chance to enjoy themselves and bring themselves into a new year. Last year was far from perfect, but a new January sun has risen over the waves of Lake Michigan, bringing visions of hope and cheer to all Northwestern students, and perhaps, even, a chance to reinvent themselves in this new annum.

That is, at least, what the Northwestern men’s basketball team (9-6, 2-4 B1G) is hoping for. The Wildcats are certainly overdue for a makeover considering what happened last year, starting the season a hot 6-1, then losing thirteen straight games, before spinning out with a final record of 9-15. With a dedicated junior class gaining valuable playing time last season, there was hope that the ’Cats had learned their lesson for this year, eager to prove themselves among the best in the Big Ten.

However, there seems to still be pessimism on the lakeshore coming from the fans. So far, the naysayers have been proven right. Who is to blame for this struggle, and who should fans turn to when times start getting brighter? Is there still a reason to believe the ’Cats could once again reach the fabled heights of 2017 and make the March Madness tournament?

You know the drill by now. Let’s pound the rock:

Opulent Overview

Pete Nance (right) and Ryan Young (left) look to box out for the rebound. Northwestern has one of the better offenses and defenses in the Big Ten, but often fail to finish the job. 

So here’s the thing about the Northwestern basketball team: it’s an anomaly. Its record is bad, but statistically, it’s one of the best teams in the country in terms of averages.

No, I’m not kidding.

The ’Cats currently hold the fourth-best scoring offense in the Big Ten with 77.7 points per game. What’s more, they’re currently fourth in the country in turnovers per game (9.1), eighth in assists per game (18.1), and a shocking first in the nation with the best assist-to-turnover ratio (2.00).

What does all this mean? Simply put, the ’Cats are really good at moving the ball around. They don’t turn it over on errant passes and they’re able to find excellent lanes to set up fantastic scoring opportunities. They can run up large scores on their opponents, while on the other end, they’re able to defend well enough to keep themselves in the game. They are incredibly skilled in ball movement, and their offensive packages – that is, what plays and passes they run to get open shots off – are what keep their scoring chances high.

Interesting, right? But where they’re incredible at getting open shots, they're not so good at making them. Out of fourteen teams, Northwestern holds just the tenth-best field goal percentage in the Big Ten with a 0.440 average, meaning the team only makes around 44% of its shots. Though the ’Cats host the conference’s sixth-best three-point shooting percentage – making downtown shots 35.1% of the time – the lack of ability to finish will be what dooms them, especially if they fall on cold spells.

Northwestern’s defense is, like the rest of the team, an enigma. The ’Cats currently host the fourth-best field goal defense (0.394) in the Big Ten, but the thirteenth-best three-point shooting defense (0.346). In other words, the Wildcats are able to keep themselves tight and closed when it comes to close shots, but often find themselves too tight and closed to properly fight off their opponent’s sharpshooters.

In short, Northwestern has an incredibly talented offensive team that can’t shoot, and a fantastic defense in close that falls apart in the final minutes. Quite the recipe.

The Ingredients

Pete Nance (second from left) sets up for the inbound play. Nance is getting notice around the league, but he's far from the only player having an impact on the squad. 

Some of the greatest teams in the history of basketball feature a dynamic duo: LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaqulle O’Neal.

For Northwestern, the dynamic duo is junior guard Boo Buie and senior forward Pete Nance.

Let’s start with the former. In his third season with the Wildcats, Buie has emerged as one of the top players in the Big Ten. He currently leads the conference in assists with 5.7 per game, and he’s 17th in the Big Ten with 14.6 points per game. As one of the team’s starting guards, Buie is the critical spark plug the ’Cats need to lead their offensive schematics and, on occasion, pull up for a deep downtown shot.

If Buie’s the spark plug, Pete Nance is the gasket. In the wake of the departure of Miller Kopp to conference-rival Indiana, Nance has become the critical figure in Northwestern’s offense, leading the team in scoring (17.1 points per game) and in rebounds (7.7 per game). Standing at 6’10’’, Nance is who the 'Cats turn to in desperate situations, and seems quietly content to stuff the stat sheet with key figures every night.

While Nance and Buie do serve as a terrific twosome, there is one more player that can’t be left out of the conversation: Chase Audige. The junior guard has only seen five games of action this year, and his presence on the floor was sorely missed. After leading Northwestern in scoring last year – and putting together some fantastic highlight reel plays – Audige has returned from a hip injury and is already making an impact on the Wildcats, putting up 11.8 points per game and providing a key defensive spark the team needs.

So with a starting trio like that, the team is destined for success, right? Well, not exactly.

Old Habits Die Hard

Head coach Chris Collins barks instructions during a timeout. In his ninth season with the Wildcats, all eyes are on the head coach as they try to return to the tournament with this stacked roster. 

One of the biggest criticisms fans have for Chris Collins, head coach of the Wildcats, is his inability to finish close games down the stretch. In seasons past, there’s been plenty of examples where Northwestern will run up the score on an opponent and finally seem like they have a break going their way, only to go cold in the final minutes.

Early in conference play this year, this narrative is still the case. Two of the Wildcats’ most recent games – a 73-67 loss to No. 10 Michigan State (13-2, 4-0 B1G) and a heart-stopping loss to Penn State (8-6, 2-2 B1G) – were highly competitive games for the team, but they could not get the job done in the waning moments; a quality that cannot be overlooked when playing in one of the NCAA’s toughest conferences.

Take, for example, the loss to Michigan State: Northwestern led the top-10 Spartans early in the game, even taking a 33-26 lead into the half. Coming into the second half, however, the ’Cats looked almost like a completely different team; they were outscored 47-34 and completely torn apart by their opponent’s excellent three-point shooting. Michigan State opened the game on an 8-0 run, and took the lead for good with just under 13 minutes to play, a deficit the ’Cats would not be able to match despite their best efforts.

A better example of the narrative, however, is the absolutely gut wrenching loss to Penn State. With nine minutes left to play, the ’Cats had taken a 57-48 lead over the Nittany Lions, and Welsh-Ryan Arena was going crazy. Northwestern had looked unstoppable all game with Buie scoring 22 points and dishing eight assists to lead the offense, and it felt as if the luck had finally turned around. ESPN believed the ’Cats had a 90% chance of winning the game.

And then the ’Cats went cold. Penn State went on a 9-0 run to tie the game. While Northwestern did give it their all to stay neck-and-neck with the Nittany Lions, they were once again undone by fantastic three-point shooting by their opponents, with the final clinching shot coming with just 36 seconds left. It was a scene all too familiar to 'Cats fans.

There are two takeaways from this: one, the ’Cats have the ability to turn on the heat and build large scoring runs over some of the best teams in the country; two, their lack of discipline will be the thing that kills them.

This team still has potential, though. Two weeks after that brutal loss to Michigan State, the ’Cats marched into their arena shorthanded (Nance was out with injury) and found themselves winning over the Spartans. They pulled off an improbable win thanks to stellar play from role players like junior forward Ryan Young. It was an unbelievable win, and one that could change the season if they find themselves in a groove.

There might be more to be said on this team's winning qualities.