The Mighty Ducks. The Bad News Bears. The Northwestern Wildcats. Everybody loves the feel-good story of a team nobody believes in banding together and exceeding all expectations. To the joy of Wildcat fans, this basketball season is shaping up to have an ending that’s normally found only in Hollywood.
At this season’s head, most expectations for Northwestern Men's Basketball (16-7, 7-5 B1G) were on the floor, and all others were in the basement. After a lackluster 2021-2022, the transfers of veteran big-men Pete Nance and Ryan Young deflated fans who were already desperate for air. For many, the most exciting part of this year was the fact it was likely head coach Chris Collins’ last.
But as the team started playing, they started doing the one thing that so few expected of them: winning. Northwestern opened play with a five game win streak, looking like a legitimate threat in the Big Ten in the process.
Optimism was slow to rise, but the team continued trending upwards and ended their out of conference schedule with a record of 9-2. Whispers of a postseason berth began to emerge, growing louder with each victory.
Northwestern then beat their in-state rival Illinois (16-7, 7-5 B1G) at home and split a red sea of Indiana Hoosiers (16-7, 7-5 B1G) on the road, causing a growing number of the purple faithful to believe this is the year the Wildcats will return to the promised land, also known as the NCAA Tournament. This would be only the team’s second berth in program history and first since the 2016-17 season.
Despite the hype, questions still remain about how good this team truly is. At some points the Northwestern offense seems to lack any identity, while at others it’s non-existent. A decent share of their wins have been slugfests, won more by heart than ability, casting doubt in those who so desperately want to believe.
But at the same time, this team’s heart is exactly why this season could very well end up enshrined in the halls of Wildcat history. Let’s take a look at why.
Many of college basketball’s most exciting teams have electrifying offenses, marked by dominance in the paint and lethal shooting from outside. Well … not Northwestern. In the Big Ten, the Wildcats currently rank just 11th in points and ninth in assists.
The thing is, these figures are actually pretty solid considering they’re dead last in the conference in field goal percentage and 11th in three point percentage.
These numbers come from Northwestern lacking a consistent source of offense, as they have neither consistency from three point range nor a command in the paint. It’s not uncommon for them to go minutes at a time without scoring as they search down their roster for a basket.
On the bright side, this team has the ability to score in a hurry, especially in crunch time. After a big shot, whether it’s a backboard-shaking dunk or three from downtown, the team emits a palpable sense of energy, creating momentum swings in their favor.
That’s where their heart comes in. Even in games where nothing is going right, there’s always the sense things can change in just an instant.
But a team that relies on heroics alone will find itself, more often than not, without any. So how has this team still been able to win? The answer isn’t too complicated: Maybe the best defense Chris Collins has ever put on a basketball court.
Any team trying to score on the Wildcats this year has been faced with a problem. Or more accurately, five problems, all wearing purple and white.
Northwestern likes to run a small-ball line up, typically with three guards on the floor at any given time. What this approach takes away in size, it gives in athleticism, allowing the ’Cats to consistently disrupt passing lanes. This strategy has led to Northwestern forcing an average of 14.3 turnovers a game, the second best figure in the conference.
The Wildcats are quick to provide help defense, taking away what would otherwise be mismatches. While some teams can still exploit this approach, Northwestern is holding teams to an average of 62 points per game, which is good for 3rd in the conference and 20th in the nation. Northwestern’s defense hasn’t only worked schematically though, as it’s fueled by excellent on ball defenders who have held opponents to just 40.1% from the field.
So while it’s true that the Northwestern offense isn’t great, against their defense, neither is anybody else’s.
Now that we’ve looked at this team's character as a whole, let’s take a closer look at the players who have been making it happen.
This Wildcat team is led by a trio of fourth-year captains; guards Boo Buie and Chase Audige, and forward Robbie Beran. This cohort is who Northwestern most heavily relies on, as it’s been these fourth-years’ elevated play that has propelled the team into a successful season.
Of the three, Audige made the biggest jump from last season, currently averaging 15.3 points, 2.5 steals and 3.0 assists per game (up from 9.8, 1.8 and 1.9 last season), and has become one of the best two-way guards in the conference, if not the nation.
Last year his play was marred by questionable shot selection and calls to play iso, casting doubt on his decision making. This year he’s largely cut those theatrics out of his game and as a captain, has led this year’s squad with poise.
Where Audige is most dangerous, however, is defense, where his 2.5 steals per game leads the Big Ten and is sixth in the country. Not only does this disrupt opposing teams rhythms, but the fast breaks have been vital for the Wildcats to score points this season.
What the stats don’t tell, however, is the joy it is to watch him play. He has a taste for the extraordinary and is constantly liable to hit either a three from the central business district or slam it in with authority. Nobody makes Welsh-Ryan louder, and opposing arenas quieter, than Chase Audige.
While Audige may be the adrenaline of the team, Boo Buie is its heartbeat. He leads the team in career minutes, and as the team’s primary ball handler, is who the offense starts with. Similarly, in crunch time it seems that Buie is whom Chris Collins trusts most to make something happen.
Buie’s greatest strength lies in his playmaking ability and is the team's best facilitator. He has a quick first step, allowing him to get by his defender and into the paint, where he’s most dangerous. Once inside, Buie is equally liable to complete an acrobatic finish as he is to thread a needle-like pass to an open man.
This skill set has him averaging 16.1 points and 4.5 assists per game, good for the eighth and fifth spots in the conference, respectively.
But the statistic that might best showcase what he brings to this team is the 34.2 minutes he averages per game. Leading by example, the team’s fighting spirit starts with him. In their hard-fought loss against Rutgers he played 39 minutes, meaning he rested for just one minute of that game. Even when his shots aren’t falling, Boo Buie continues to act as a leader for this squad and provide the resilience that has fueled their season.
Following the aforementioned departures of Nance and Young, there seemed to be two gaping holes in the Northwestern frontcourt, with the looming question of who could fill them. That answer has come in the form of Robbie Beran.
Beran averages an impressive 5.1 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game, but the role he plays is far more than just those statistics. He’s the only forward on the Northwestern roster who had seen considerable playing time before this season, making his veteran presence absolutely vital. He serves as anchor inside, consistently in the right spot to help facilitate the offense as well as bolster the defense.
It’s also important to note that Robbie Beran also holds arguably the team’s most iconic nickname in “Headband Bob,” lovingly bestowed on him for his iconic look.
Now a veteran in conference play, Beran’s role as a steadying force will only grow more important as Northwestern dances further into the gauntlet of Big Ten play.
We’ve now gone over the stars of this Wildcat team, but just like any Hollywood movie, none of their performances would mean anything if it weren’t for the supporting cast. Characterized by unrelenting defense and constant improvement, here’s a look at some of this team’s unsung heroes.
Leading up to this season, third-year guard Ty Berry was seen primarily as a role player for this team, and brought the most value as a three-point shooter. He’s now found his way into the starting lineup and is consistently one of the most versatile players on the floor.
Berry has expanded his offensive game, averaging 8.9 points per game and even had 26 against Nebraska (11-13, 4-9 B1G). Berry had flashed his offensive potential in previous seasons, which has caused his developments this season to be the subject of many fans’ delight. What few saw coming, however, were the leaps he would make as a defender and rebounder.
Berry is currently averaging 4.7 rebounds a game, and an impressive 1.4 steals. Playing on the wing, he expertly jumps passing lanes, rewarding opposing teams’ carelessness with a finish on fast break. As his offensive game continues to improve, and a season and a half left to play, it's exciting for Wildcat fans to imagine the player he will continue to become.
Rounding out the starting lineup is the seven-footer, third-year forward Matthew Nicholson. Nobody on the team saw their role change in a greater fashion than Nicholson’s, going from 4.4 minutes per game to 20.6. He’s taken the promotion in stride and has provided the size this team lacks inside.
Nicholson’s offensive game is limited, but he provides a necessary defensive presence, leading to the 6.0 rebounds he brings in and the 1.3 shots he blocks. What’s still to be measured, however, is, the decibel level in Welsh Ryan after a dunk from Big Matt.
Finally, a pair of underclassmen to watch for are second-year guards Julian Roper and Brooks Barnhizer. Each saw limited playing time last season, but this year have proven themselves as more than capable defenders who can provide impactful minutes on the floor. Unselfish, they provide valuable contributions to this Wildcat squad’s hardy nature.
So, is this team perfect? No, certainly not. But despite its flaws, it's been able to already win some of the biggest games in Northwestern basketball history and revive the Wildcat fanbase. Northwestern students are so excited to see this team play that the university has already changed the ticketing process, making it necessary to reserve a seat beforehand.
The ending to this team’s season is still to be written, but when the final credits do roll in the Spring, you can count on plenty of more excitement from a team that never stopped fighting.
Thumbnail photo by Brandi Simpson/North by Northwestern