All hail the Cats. Expectations were dreary. The writing was on the wall. Chris Collins was done. An ugly if close loss to Auburn followed by a drubbing from Pitt didn’t help. And then...the Northwestern Machine started rolling. A win over Sparty announced that they would not be a pushover. After getting roughed up by OSU, they responded with wins over Indiana and Illinois. Then they kept winning. By February 19th they were 11-5 in the conference and within striking distance of winning it. A late swoon didn’t help, but they finished 21-10, 12-8 in the conference, and as I am reminded constantly by my co-writers, the #2 seed in the Big Ten Tourney. That parlayed into an NCAA berth for the second time in their history, and they beat Boise State before falling in the second round to UCLA.
The biggest loss is Chase Audige, who is trying to catch on with the NBA. Robbie Beran transferred to Virginia Tech. Tydus Verhoeven ran out of eligibility. Julian Roper transferred to Notre Dame and Micah Shrewberry.
PG Boo Buie, 6’2’’ 5th Year: Can Buie top last season? He posted a career high in assist rate, free throw shooting, and two point shooting, while taking a full 100 more two point shots compared to the year before. He got to the line at a career high and made 87% of his foul shots. The one area that he did not improve was three pointing. While he was prolific at taking them, he was only ok making them at 32%. If he can improve that statistic, which seems doable for someone so good at making shots, he could be the top point guard in the country. He did apparently have offseason hand surgery so let’s hope the doctor didn’t accidentally snip a few nerves.
SG Ty Berry, 6’3’’ 4th Year: Speaking of improved shooting, Berry seems the most likely to step in for Audige as the main other scoring option, and they need improved shooting out of him. After shooting 38% from three as a sophomore, he only made 29% last season. A shooting guard that can’t shoot is not ideal.
SF Ryan Langborg, 6’4’’ 5th Year: The transfer portal taketh and the transfer portal giveth, here giving them Langborg from Princeton. You might remember Langborg going off for 26 in the Sweet Sixteen last year against Creighton. He’ll be another option offensively and it feels like Northwestern will try to go bombs away from deep this year. Langborg can score at multiple levels but takes most of his shots from three. He was ok last year, shooting 32%, but did shoot 40% in 2022. Locutus from Lang Borg may be the new Northwestern overlord.
PF Brooks Barnhizer, 6’6’’ 3rd Year: Barnhizer is the Wildcat most likely to take a leap. He scored in double figures in 7 of their last 10 games last year. I’m not certain whether Collins will play what amounts to a four guard lineup, but it feels like they will surround Nicholson with shooters and he fits the bill.
C Matthew Nicholson, 7’0’’ 4th Year: Nicholson should give Northwestern what he gave them last year, which is to be tall and near the basket.
C Blake Preston, 6’9’’ 5th Year: Northwestern is lacking size, but the transfer portal gives them Preston out of our lord and savior Liberty. He was a really strong rebounder there and seems like the top option to spell Nicholson off the bench or play next to him in big lineups.
SF Nick Martinelli, 6’7’’ 2nd Year: The rare freshman to see his minutes increase as the season wore on, Martinelli may have a big role this year and might even start on the wing. His numbers were so spare that any sort of projections are difficult, but Northwestern fans were fairly happy with what they saw.
PF Luke Hunger, 6’10’’ 2nd Year: Hunger Games did not see his minutes increase and only played in six games, all in the nonconference. However, he is tall and Northwestern has a need for height, so we should see at least a bit more of him this season.
SG Justin Mullens, 6’6’’ 2nd Year: Mullens is another second year player, though he is a transfer addition out of Denver. He was a real player out there and started a bunch of games, though his usage wasn’t high and betting on inexperienced transfers is always dicey. Still, he is a wing and Northwestern needs wings, so he has to be considered for playing time.
PG Jordan Clayton, 6’2’’ Freshman: Clayton is a freshman out of Massachusetts and checked in at 189 on the composite. Obviously he isn’t going to compete with Buie for minutes, but he has the reputation as a good shooter and might break into the lineup to spell Buie or play off the ball.
PF Blake Barkley, 6’8’’ Freshman: Another three star prospect, Barkley was 249th on the composite and didn’t even get his picture uploaded to the site. No doubt he will be on the Respect Tour of 2024.
A Conversation With Our Writers
MNW: Can Northwestern repeat the highs of 2023?
MaximumSam: Hey! That’s my line! Can Northwestern repeat the highs of 2023?
MNW: ...probably not.
Hey, wait, come back!
The Wildcats have the unenviable task of replacing the defense of Chase Audige and finding a playmaking complement to Boo Buie. Ryan Langborg, a guard transfer from Princeton, and Liberty transfer swing man Blake Preston could help with this and provide some depth, while the most optimistic of ‘Cats fan is promising that Denver transfer guard Justin Mullens will basically be the next Audige. If one of those three hit, Northwestern should be a firmly NIT team, but contributions from two of those and we could be cooking with gas.
That’s because Northwestern has pieces in both the back and frontcourt to keep doing damage. Buie remains streaky but liable to put the team on his back any given night, and Matt Nicholson really matured as a rim protector. The big man learning just, like, ONE single competent post move would be a hell of an off-season development. In the meantime, big fella, keep up those three or four dunks a game.
The player whose maturation I am most excited to see, though, is Brooks Barnhizer. The wispy-mustachioed forward emerged late season as a slashing, shooting option. Can he keep that up, especially with the likely physical demands of being asked to match up with larger forwards? I really hope so.
A wildcard in all of this that I haven’t mentioned is Ty Berry. I don’t know what to do with the kid. We know we can shoot, we know he’s not bad on the dribble, but at times he just looked a little sized out or overwhelmed. His development into a capable 2 would be huge to lighten Boo’s load and help Northwestern space the floor.
BoilerUp89: MNW hit most of the main points. They will be a solid defensive team. Buie and Nicholson give them two solid options on the offensive side of the ball. Buie can be streaky and Nicholson doesn’t have quite the ceiling you want in a second-best option but the two can generate some offense for NW. It would be asking a lot for them to carry the team though.
The transfers of Roper and Beran are bigger deals that we are acknowledging. They were Northwestern’s top two shooters from 3 last year and would have been a big part of the Wildcats floor spacing this year. Maybe Barnhizer flipped a switch in February that will continue on this year and that replaces one of them. Langborg and Preston don’t bring much distance shooting to the table and Mullins was limited to just 67 attempts last year (his percentage was solid, but the volume is too low for me to trust him to repeat it especially with the jump in competition level).
MNW: It’s fine to bring up the Roper and Beran transfers - I didn’t address it, because I wish them both well but think the ‘Cats are better expending their minutes elsewhere.
The biggest thing, like BU89 notes: I think Brooks Barnhizer turned a corner. If that’s not the case? Uh...uh...
MaximumSam: So all of Northwestern’s hopes are pinned on Brooky Barnhizer. Nothing to worry about there. What are your predictions?
MNW: You know what you’re going to get with a Chris Collins team: four-out, Nicholson setting a lot of ball screens, plenty of jacked-up threes, and a defense that has gotten even more tenacious with the addition of assistant coach and former SIU head man Chris Lowery. Unless Langborg or Berry become the absolute truth on offense or Buie puts up a 20-spot night-in and night-out, Northwestern is going to be another grind-it-out-in-the-60s kind of team. The cats gave themselves a favorable schedule to both get some good wins come March and figure a couple things out offensively. Best case scenario they are in another double-bye situation, but I think top half of the Big Ten should totally be the expectation.
Of course, Northwestern basketball and expectations don’t exactly go hand-in-hand...Northwestern got a rough schedule. It’s incumbent on them to get a scalp or two in the B1G, but that will excuse a 10-8/9-9 kind of record. (If that’s what we’re expecting.)
BoilerUp89: There are plenty of questions, but the team is fully capable of grinding out enough wins in Big Ten play to stay relevant. And since the Wildcats did the best job of scheduling a NCAA tournament resume, that means they should be in the mix come March. If they can figure some things out and steal a win or two, this could once again be THE YEAR. If I was a Wildcats fans, I wouldn’t love that their home game against Purdue is Dec 1 and their home game against MSU is Jan 7. Both games are early enough in the season that Northwestern could still be in the process of gelling while the Boilermakers and Spartans brought back all their guys. Would have been nice for NW to have their home/away games against Purdue & MSU flipped. I think that would have made it more likely that they steal one and get a resume defining win to add to what should be a solid one.
I’m expecting a 11-9/10-10/9-11 kind of record since we play 20 games in this league.