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2021-22 Northwestern Wildcats Basketball Preview

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Has Chris Collins finally entered a “put up or shut up” year in Evanston? With a deep roster and a favorable schedule, it might be NIT or bust.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

This is it for Chris Collins: NIT or bust.

The 2016-17 Northwestern basketball season is but a distant memory.

In story after story since then, Northwestern has run a sloppy offense, shot the ball poorly, and seen its assist/TO ratios drop as it invariably goes on a lengthy losing streak in Big Ten play. They have struggled to develop any kind of true consistency out of each batch of the latest “best recruits in program history” while striking out in the transfer portal, whether with the mercurial A.J. Turner (Boston College), indifferent Ryan Taylor (Evansville), and gritty gym rat Pat Spencer (Dr. Loyola lacrosse, you may have heard, though it’s fair to note Spencer wasn’t a whiff but rather was surrounded by so much incompetence it didn’t matter).

I’m here to tell you that THIS year, Northwestern, now with their best recruits in program history having become veterans, a second year of contributions from a high-profile transfer, and another transfer with scoring potential...

I. 2020-21 Season Recap

The COVID-shortened 2020-21 season threatened the Big Ten with another moment of “Wildcat competence”. Having lost only the Big Ten-ACC Challenge non-conference game to Pitt by a point, the ‘Cats then handled #4 Michigan State behind Boo Buie’s 30 points, walked into Assembly Hall and scrapped out a victory over the Hoosiers, and came home and snuck past #23 Ohio State as Audige and Buie hit clutch threes late.

The ‘Cats were #19 in the country. It was on.

And then the losses began.

At #10 Iowa. At #16 Michigan. A beatdown at home to #12 Illinois, a scrappy road loss to #21 Ohio State, then home, exhausted for an evisceration at the hands of #5 Iowa.

Oh, I’m not even halfway there.

A road loss at then-#10 wisconsin took any of the luster and promise from this season (3-6, for those keeping up in their hymnals), and then the close losses began: 3 at Penn State. 8 to Rutgers at home. 5 at ranked Purdue. The ugliest 2OT collapse I’ve ever seen at home against Indiana. The streak was now 10 losses.

And, because it’s the Big Ten, another three ranked losses: a strangling at #25 Rutgers, a creditable effort at #5 Illinois, another strangling from #21 wisconsin.

13 straight losses and, hopefully, a mad Medill grad who stumbles upon this and sees me starting a sentence with a number.

Single-digit wins over Minnesota, Maryland, and Nebraska salvaged a 6-13 record, but a 51-46 war crime of a loss to the Gophers in the Big Ten Tournament doomed the ‘Cats to exactly what they’ve been since that magical season—a streaky, scrappy, sloppy mess of mediocrity under Chris Collins.

II. The Players

I want to be clear about that “streaky, scrappy, sloppy mess” as I move into a look at the ‘Cats roster—I lay this at the feet of Chris Collins. While players need to execute, I don’t see them in an offense or positions that I believe is actually giving Northwestern a chance to realize its full potential.

Key Departures

F Miller Kopp (transferred to Indiana); G Anthony Gaines (transferred to Siena)

Key Additions

F Casey Simmons (3*, Milton, MA); F Brooks Barnhizer (3*, Lafayette, IN); G Julian Roper (3*, Orchard Lake, MI); F Elyjah Williams (transferred from Fairleigh Dickinson)

Projected Depth Chart

Note: This is not how I’m projecting they’ll roll out their starting 5! Please do not ‘at’ me! I honestly just wanted to list everyone who was on the team!

Northwestern Projected Lineup

Start Backup Depth Walk-On
Start Backup Depth Walk-On
Chase Audige (t-jr) Ryan Greer (g-sr) Julian Roper (fr) Roy Dixon III (jr)
Boo Buie (jr) Ty Berry (so) Casey Simmons (fr) Dylan Sandhu (rs jr)
Robbie Beran (jr) Brooks Barnhizer (fr)
Pete Nance (sr) Elyjah Williams (t-jr)
Ryan Young (rs jr) Matt Nicholson (so)

There’s not a ton of sense having a linear table there, because Barnhizer won’t be the first one in for Beran. More than likely, Williams (6’7”, 220) is the first off the bench to replace any of the three big men out there.

But it really comes down to the contributions and performance of those first five—with Miller Kopp having flown (ahem) the koop, can Robbie Beran finally look like a Big Ten-worthy stretch three? He can shoot the three at a decent clip (37%) but was often absent or, worse, mediocre on offense—the ‘Cats can’t afford a black hole, because no one was a good enough shooter on this club (the now-departed Kopp included) to drag Northwestern out of that slump.

Some of that slump rested on the shoulders of Boo Buie, who struggled with some of the expectations and pressure so clearly lumped on him to lead the offense in 2020. He shot just 37% from the field and, while his assist numbers went up (4.0 apg)—a credit to him for learning from assistants like Bryant McIntosh on the NU staff—a stark fact remained, as I noted over at InsideNU a couple weeks ago: Northwestern was 7-4 when Boo Buie scored double-digits. Their only two wins when he didn’t were Chicago State and UA-Pine Bluff.

His scoring void was filled by shit-talker and tech-taker extraordinaire Chase Audige. The Bill’n’Mary transfer guard brings a swagger that leads to clutch shooting and frustrating chucking all the like—think Tre Demps, but with more athleticism. Audige only averaged 12.3 ppg in 2020-21, but you’ll see him shoulder more of the guard scoring in 2021-22.

Of course, there’s a 6’10” elephant in the room—what, exactly is Northwestern supposed to make of Pete Nance?

The guy is clearly one of the most physically gifted specimens Northwestern’s ever had in Welsh-Ryan. He can get to the hoop, he can block shots, and he can shoot the three—36.4% in 2020-21—but has been dogged by complaints (shut up, my complaints count) that he’s too soft in the post and can’t create enough space to shoot despite an NBA draft-ready frame. For better or for worse, though—and optimism springs eternal—Nance is a leader on this team, and as his size allows him to stretch anywhere from the 3 to the 5 in this offense, he’ll be on the court unless foul trouble or a quick breather get him. He just has to produce.

Rounding out the cast of characters are a couple intriguing big men, transfer F Elyjah Williams of Fairleigh Dickinson and C Ryan Young (or Ry-M-C-A, to those in the know). Evanston native Williams is exactly what you’d think a transfer from the Northeast Conference would look like—a scorer who might’ve gotten some points just because he was bigger than most, but who will likely experience a learning curve in the Big Ten.

As for Ry-M-C-A? Just watch this one single play from the Indiana upset:

Almost every other center in the Big Ten flushes that on the entry pass. Not Ry-M-C-A. No no no. Plodding, flailing, sweaty mass that he is, Ry-M-C-A waits for the defender, gets him on his back, then gets the bucket and another point for his troubles. All he’s missing is rec specs and a receding hairline, and I love him dearly for it. He’s hustle, hard work, and energy that’s desperately needed—usually to the tune of about 20 minutes a game. Or, as former Northwestern player and now Texas GA Jordan Ash put it on Twitter:

You cannot overemphasize how true this was in 2020-21.

If you’d like a little example of “Hey, what does it look like when this team plays a complete game?” I’d recommend turning to last year’s 60-55 win over Maryland:

That’s right—a 60-55 win over Maryland. You’ve got:

  • Buie hitting threes from wherever he wants (1:20) but also some slick dribbling through traffic for a floater in the lane (1:41)
  • Audige with a pair of nice little stepback threes (:55. 2:04) and some quintessential post-three shittalking
  • Nance with some good passing out of the post, plus a rejection of a Terp after falling behind a step on the drive (1:14)
  • Beran missing a layup (2:21) but getting a rebound (2:22)
  • Greer not getting a ton of dribble penetration, but making enough space that he can find Nance for an easy layup (2:34)
  • Young being a sweaty mass of flailing limbs and one or two post moves (2:54)

Death. Taxes. Ryan Young.

III. Expectations in 2021-22

My amateur—again, you oafs, this is a free sports blog where I just yell into the ether—take is that Northwestern has absolutely no identity on offense, something that starts at the top. A few years after showing a willingness to transition into a 1-4 high set to juice the offense, the ‘Cats have fallen back on stale, boring pick-and-roll sets that try to space the floor but lack the shooters and/or slashers to actually make that happen.

Sets where Nance or Young get touches in the post but where the ball keeps flowing throughout the offense allow Northwestern to overcome the usual talent deficits—almost like there should be an offense where the ball moves constantly and less-talented players space the floor and make cuts, say to the back door, for layups...a coach who ran that would be a genius, I’d bet. Buie and Audige can take over games, but not consistently enough to the point that Northwestern can abandon all pretenses of running a full offense and committing to good ball movement.

That starts with Collins.

My expectation for the year is that we see a more rounded offensive identity—the ‘Cats will play overall decent defense and at a relatively slow place—that prioritizes some efficiency and will, just enough in the non-conference, push the pace to get my hopes up.

But the expectation should be to clean up games with Minnesota, Nebraska, and Penn State to put themselves in a position to be getting to 8-12 or so and in NIT contention.

I’m not wild on that as the clearable, achievable goal, but there we are.

What expectations should be:

NIT or bust. This is as deep and experienced a team as Chris Collins has had since the letdown year of the All-State Arena. The ‘Cats briefly showed up in some bracketology projections earlier in the year, and while I think people have realized “Yeah...uh...maybe not,” there’s still a belief that with a team led by experience in Nance, Buie, and Audige, Northwestern should be competitive.

What expectations will be:

I dunno, probably a .500 record and a 6-14 Big Ten campaign? Maybe avoiding the first day of the Big Ten Tournament?

There’s also the conspiracy theory my friend and I concocted during the Northwestern-Rutgers football game (we had a lot of free time to talk) that this could be Collins’ last season in Evanston because of the turnover in the Northwestern Athletics Department.

After the disastrous hiring and resigning of Mike Polisky upon AD Jim Phillips’ departure for the ACC, Northwestern opted for Tulsa AD Derrick Gragg—a Vanderbilt alumnus who’s had stops at Eastern Michigan and Tulsa. Gragg fired then-HC and currently NU special teams coach Jeff Genyk at EMU in 2008 (make it two for two, Derrick!) to hire Ron English, brought in EMU basketball HC Rob Murphy (who ran a respectable program), and...hired basketball HC Frank Haith and football HC Philip Montgomery at Tulsa. So...a decent record.

The theory, though, is that because Pat Fitzgerald is untouchable in football, because Joe McKeown has already built a winning women’s basketball program, and because no other prominent program at Northwestern is remotely struggling, men’s basketball is the place where Gragg could make a change relatively quickly.

IV. Schedule

Non-Conference

There’s...stuff to like here? Non-con plays with Wake Forest (KP 104) and DePaul (KP 140) are fine, generally speaking for where Northwestern’s at as a program, but they’ll offer very little come NCAA Tournament time (perish the thought).

That’s putting all the eggs, basically, in the basket of the Legends Classic in Newark, NJ.

I’m not sure what Georgia (KP 159) do under Tom Crean except run around a lot, but there’s that, and they’re sure to have more athletes than Northwestern, which leaves Virginia (KP 45). I assume a Northwestern/Virginia game would end 55-42.

There’s nothing else here: EIU (338), High Point (274), New Orleans (321), Fair Dick (325), NJIT (289), Prairie View A&M (224), and D-III Illinois-Springfield (shoutout to the Prairie Stars!) better be a 7-0 sweep, or we’ve got even more trouble right here in River City.

Conference

Double Plays: Illinois (5), Purdue (6), Michigan State (22), Maryland (18), Penn State (70), Nebraska (81), Minnesota (120)

Single Plays (“home”): wisconsin (44), Rutgers (67), Indiana (31)

Single Plays (away): Michigan (2), Ohio State (8), Iowa (23)

About as friendly as you’re going to get in the Big Ten. Double-plays with Illinois, Purdue, and Michigan State blow, but a split with Maryland is conceivable. If the ‘Cats want to be taken seriously, they need sweeps of Minnesota and Nebraska and can ill-afford a trip-up at Penn State. Add to that their three most winnable single-plays at home (I’m not holding out hope in the house of horrors that has been Carver-Hawkeye), and...

Ugh. I’m making myself believe in this team. I need to wrap this up.

V. Predictions

As always, we reserve the right to change these before the Big Ten season tips off (there’ll also be more writers picking records by then)—and I just might change mine because I’ve talked myself into some things, but for now:

Give me a split in Newark and a split with Wake and DePaul. That’s 9-2 (9-3, really, with a loss to Maryland in the December conference intermezzo) heading into Big Ten play with some hope that hey, maybe this thing works.

From the Penn State matchup on January 5 to the Rutgers matchup (or beyond) on February 1, Northwestern might not win a single game.

This is the calling card under Chris Collins—a midseason swoon that he appears powerless to stop—and it sure looks like it could rear its ugly head in, what would be, one last merciful time.

If it doesn’t? Northwestern could be sitting even higher—think 8-12 or 9-11 in conference—garnering some NCAA Tournament bubble love.

But, at the very least, it’s NIT or bust.

Poll

How does Northwestern finish in 2021-22?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    NCAA Tournament
    (11 votes)
  • 21%
    NIT
    (16 votes)
  • 31%
    No NIT, but Collins sticks around
    (24 votes)
  • 32%
    No NIT, and Collins is gone
    (25 votes)
76 votes total Vote Now