Northwestern men’s basketball (1-0, 0-0 B1G) is an enigma. Four seasons ago, they made national headlines when they made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, hoping to dispel the idea of futility within the program. Last season, they began their season with losses to Merrimack and Radford. As a result, nobody ever really knows what to expect from the program each season.
This one started right, however: the ’Cats pulled off a gritty yet flashy domination of Arkansas-Pines Bluff (0-4, 0-0 SWAC), beating the Golden Lions 92-49. The game was a complete team effort, as five players scored double-digit points: junior forwards Miller Kopp (18) and Pete Nance (11), sophomore Ryan Young (10), and new star guards Chase Audige (16) and Ty Berry (15).
“I think as a team, we were just prepared for this game for so long,” Audige said postgame. “I think we did a great job to be honest, our credits of Pine Bluff, they're a great team, but I think we really put together today. I think we have a long way to go with where we need to go, but I think we have some potential.”
The game was a fantastic performance for the ’Cats, who showed fantastic progress in all aspects of the court. Northwestern shot 51.6% on the court, including a whopping 14-for-29 on three point shots; Miller Kopp led all players with four three pointers, but the young guns Audige and Berry were right behind him with three.
“It was great,” Kopp said postgame on playing with Berry and Audige for the first time. “Sometimes we play against each other in practice, and it's tough because Chase is such a good defender, and Ty’s so hard to guard. It was great to kind of make it official… I've got these guys behind my back and I'm behind theirs too. So it was awesome to make it official and go to battle with those guys.”
The Golden Lions were led in their effort by senior forward Markedric Bell, who notched a double-double with 11 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, and junior guard Jalen Lynn, who shot a team-best 4-for-8 for 12 points.
At first, it looked like the ’Cats may have had more rust on them than previously expected, as they shot the ball poorly early on, going 5-for-16 over the first nine minutes. In addition, the team’s transition play was exceptionally sloppy, giving up two own zone turnovers and allowing Pine Bluff to stay in the game, even leading at one point.
“I just thought we were just a little bit too rushed,” Northwestern Head Coach Chris Collins said. “I think you saw us really trying to advance the ball, pass the ball ahead, and I just thought we were a little rushed early. You know, we had a couple uncharacteristic turnovers, I thought we took a couple quick, bad shots… and then we settled down.”
The ’Cats quickly recovered, however, thanks to what Wildcat fans hope to be the first of many fantastic performances by Audige: the sophomore guard nailed two three-pointers to help the team run back out to a lead, and showed great ball movement around the zone, including a fantastic dunk. A 15-2 run allowed Northwestern to settle back into their flow, and at half, they led the Golden Lions 39-29.
The second half was a lot more fun to watch, as the ’Cats completely opened the floor over their opponents; Ryan Young began to finish in the paint, Robbie Beran was pulling off spectacular dunks, and Audige continued to splash deep buckets.
Building a comfortable lead, Collins put in the first-year Berry to test his play and give him some first team reps; the kid delivered, nailing his first shot from downtown on the road to fifteen points.
“We are going to shoot a lot of threes, we're going to open the floor,” Collins said. “We're going to try to utilize what our strengths are, and I think one of our strengths is shooting. So that is going to be something, in my opinion, that you'll see more of this year.”
Beyond the dominant score, the ’Cats looked great on a number of aspects that bode well for the rest of the season. The team recorded 25 assists on 32 made field goals, the most in nearly two years, highlighting their ability to move the ball around and spread out defenders. The team also appears to have a great downtown presence, as fourteen three-pointers (seven made by Audige and Kopp) is fantastic for any team to have. It may have just been the first game for a team that still needs to play seven AP-ranked teams, but a 43-point win is nothing to sneeze at, especially with the young core the ’Cats are playing with:
“Obviously the conference is going to be very tough this year, but it's exciting to know that everybody who played tonight, we didn't have one senior on the floor,” Collins said postgame. “That's what that extra eligibility does, it gives us a chance to continue to build this group up together. That was part of why we played them all last year, that was done by design, we knew we were going to have our struggles, but we're committed to this group and growing with them. I think those experiences they got last year are going to help them be more equipped to play this year and into the future for us.”
Northwestern’s next game will be another home showcase against Chicago State, the second of four non-conference matches before their first big test: Tom Izzo and No. 8 Michigan State. Yet, the enigma goes on: will the ’Cats live up to the challenge? Or will it be another long year with just three conference wins?
Here’s hoping it’s the former.