Against all odds, college hoops has wrangled its way to tip-off, as the first games of the 2020-21 season began last week. The Northwestern Wildcats will play their first game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Wednesday, Dec. 2.
Nothing is normal about this upcoming basketball season. More COVID-19 protocols leave less room for error as teams begin the season on high alert. The league saw 32 game cancellations on opening night, including Northwestern’s season-opener against Prairie View A&M. While coaches work to enforce strict team bubbles, COVID seems to be everyone’s biggest opponent as schools hope to avoid any more cancellations to an already shortened season.
Anticipation surrounds Northwestern’s first game this week. Last season’s 3-17 conference record leaves room for improvement. Fans will be anxious to watch Game 1, waiting to see if this summer’s quarantine lent to a productive off-season.
Before setting any expectations for this season, it will be helpful to remember the strength of some of the ‘Cats biggest rivals. The Big Ten is one of the strongest basketball conferences in the country, with seven of its 14 teams ranked Top 25 in the pre-season. Two teams have players ranked Top 10 in the nation, including Luka Garza (1, Iowa Hawkeyes) and Ayo Dosunmu (8, Illinois).
The University of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Nebraska all have recruiting classes ranked Top 20 in the country, and let’s not forget Michigan State’s appearance in the 2018-19 Final Four (last year’s March Madness was cancelled due to the pandemic, and the Spartans did lose a strong senior class, but Tom Izzo’s Michigan State remains a consistent threat).
The struggles from strong conference matchups should serve as an excuse for some of last season’s underperformance. Looking at Northwestern’s 2019-20 record reveals some close games against highly ranked opponents as well. This should give Northwestern fans hope as they look for better play in 2021.
Let’s break down some of the ‘Cats who are working to make a dent on the scoreboard this season.
Junior Miller Kopp looks to remain one the team’s key offensive pieces, leading the ‘Cats with an average 13.1 points last season. He was first in the Big Ten for free throws, with an 88.1 shooting percentage, and ninth in the conference for 3-point shots, making 39.8 percent from beyond the arc. At 6-foot-7, the forward does a good job keeping the ball in Northwestern’s court, maintaining one of the lowest turnover rates in the league.
Point guard Boo Buie returns after a productive off-season, looking to make waves for Northwestern during his second season with the ‘Cats. The sophomore battled a foot injury last year, forcing him to be in and out of games. Buie still managed to average 10.3 points per game, and scored back-to-back 25+ point games against DePaul and Michigan State. Success during his freshman year sparks hope for Bouie’s high offensive capabilities looking toward this season. The sophomore had the team’s highest usage rate last season as well, at 27%. Fans should expect the sophomore to come back stronger this year, with another year of experience under his belt.
Coming off a shoulder injury last season, redshirt junior Anthony Gaines is an experienced leader for the team’s young roster. Averaging 4.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists during the 2018-19 season, Gaines has made an impact defensively for the team in years past. His injury sidelined him after only 10 games last season, but he was still able to make an impact at the board, gaining nine rebounds during the Bradford matchup last season. Gaines brings experience to a team that needs leadership, and fans should expect high impact as he returns from a productive off-season.
Transfer Chase Audige looks to make a mark this year as he comes off Northwestern’s bench after sitting out for the entirety of last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Audige transferred from William & Mary after starting in 21 games in his freshman season. He could make a difference for the ‘Cats after averaging 9.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game for the Tribe in just his first year. The redshirt sophomore will likely have some impact on Northwestern’s defense as well, after securing 44 steals his first season and becoming a member of the 2018-19 CAA all-rookie team.
Northwestern junior Pete Nance has continued to improve in his two seasons with the ‘Cats. As the fifth highest scorer for Northwestern, Nance averaged 8.5 points per game last season, also maintaining a 29.7% 3-point success rate. He has increased his free throw percentage from 42% his freshman season to 68% as a sophomore, and according to Coach Collins, continues to push his strength and defensive aspects of his game as well. At 6-foot-10, the junior should be set to stand up to other big men in the conference.