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Better Know a B1G Dancer: Northwestern

For the second time in recorded human history, it was The Year. Can the Wildcats improve on their Round of 32 showing from 2017?

John J. Kim | Chicago Tribune

It was The Year.


Are you happy?

...because I sure as hell am.

This Northwestern team was supposed to go nowhere (except maaaaybe the NIT if you squinted hard enough), be nothing, do nothing. Its leading scorer from 2021-22, Pete Nance, had left for North Carolina, its big man, Ryan Young, for Duke. All that remained were two streaky guards, an underwhelming swing man, and a bunch of untested sophomores and juniors. I called it a “Walking Trainwreck” then, and I wasn’t wrong! Chris Collins should have lost his job, and he didn’t. There was little reason for optimism.

Little changed in the off-season. New AD Dr. Derrick Gragg publicly read Collins the Riot Act at the end of the 2021-22 season, but all the ‘Cats managed in the transfer portal was little-heralded big man Tydus Verhoeven from UTEP.

Here’s what I could muster in our 2022-23 preview of Northwestern:

We are a developmental program apparently. Developing backup centers for Duke, developing backup power forwards for North Carolina, developing starting guards for Yale. That, and one NCAA tournament appearance, will be Chris Collins’s legacy.

But, when November rolls around, I’m going to be so excited that Northwestern basketball gives me something to watch that is not this god-awful football team. I love Welsh Ryan when it’s rocking; I love some of the quirky and annoying things that Northwestern basketball historically has done to the powers of the Big Ten. But that joy is gone around this program. It is a collection of chuckers and stretch fours who don’t appear to play any kind of organized basketball that will succeed in the Big Ten. This year it will include a pair of untested forwards in Luke Hunger and Tydus Verhoven and marginal Big Ten player Robbie Beran. I’m sure that front line will stop whatever behemoths Purdue and Illinois and even Wisconsin or Indiana roll out.

This is going to be a disaster, but it would be so nice if it were at least a fun kind of disaster. Play high scoring games or grit out 55-52 games that nobody enjoys but a small, committed cohort of morons like myself. I don’t care, I just want to enjoy Northwestern basketball again. And, much like the last few years of Northwestern basketball: while there are a few compelling storylines or players to root for individually, this team looks once again to be less than the sum of its parts.

If Chris Collins can change that? Maybe, just maybe there’s hope yet.

We weren’t exactly optimistic in our 2022-23 predictions for the ‘Cats, either:

OTE’s Big Ten 2022-23 Previews

But, mercifully, we were wrong. Finally, for the first time in six years, a Northwestern team was greater than the sum of its parts.

The Roster

  • G Boo Buie
  • G Chase Audige
  • G Ty Berry
  • F Robbie Beran
  • C Matthew Nicholson

It remained true that Northwestern had two streaky guards in Boo Buie and Chase Audige, but both took the needed steps forward to propel the ‘Cats in 2022-23: Buie scored 21+ in three straight wins over #1 Purdue, #14 Indiana, and Iowa—then had a career-best 35 in a loss to Illinois—and Audige dominated early in the year, with 21 in a December rout of Illinois, 20 in a win over the Fucking Falwells, and 28 in a pasting of DePaul.

They’ve been helped, though, by a surrounding cast that has chipped in, often, at the right times. Sixth man Brooks Barnhizer—he of the haircut and mustache that make you think “Well, that’s unfortunate”—has scored double-digits in six straight games and shows some ability off the bounce as well as spot-up shooting. Big man Matt Nicholson was a revelation for ‘Cats fans this year, too: double-digit games are rarer for him, but he’s good for a couple dunks and has really made his presence felt on defense.

What Northwestern Does Well

It starts and ends on the defensive side of the ball. Northwestern added assistant coach Chris Lowery, formerly at Southern Illinois, and that change made all the difference.

Two noticeable differences stand out when the ‘Cats are on defense:

  • Ball-hawking: Northwestern produces 14.3 turnovers a game, nabs 8 steals a game, and blocks over 4 shots a game. All that comes from a defense that rotates heavily and gets arms up and in passing lanes. Chase Audige (2.4 steals/gm) is longer than he looks and is one of four finalists for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.
  • Trapping in the post: This was the most jarring adjustment with Northwestern basketball in 2022-23—the moment teams get the ball into the short corner or the post, the Wildcats trap the ball and rotate heavily to deny passing lanes out of that trap. The human tree that is Matthew Nicholson, as well as depth piece Verhoeven, have been vital here—hesitate with the ball and there’s nowhere to go.

What Northwestern Does Poorly

While the ‘Cats shoot a lot of threes (95th most nationally), they’re not good at it (32.1%, 294th). That volume-scoring means some variability night-to-night—often it’s left to Buie and Audige to make up the difference, and...well, flip a coin. They’re volume chuckers, often left to play hero-ball late in the shot clock, and against lengthier defenders it doesn’t go well.

You’ll hear Ty Berry referred to as a “shooter”, but I personally wouldn’t call someone shooting 28.4% from three a “shooter”. And I like the kid!

Nicholson and Verhoeven are defenders, not scorers. And for some reason, Barnhizer doesn’t get the ball in crunch time.

The NCAA Tournament

West Region

[7] Northwestern Wildcats vs. [10] Boise State Broncos

Thursday, March 16 | 6:35pm CT | truTV | NU -1.5 | O/U 128.5

Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, CA

[2] UCLA Bruins vs. [15] UNC Asheville Bulldogs

Thursday, March 16 | 9:05pm CT | truTV | UCLA -17.5 | O/U 134.5

I don’t like this first-round matchup for the ‘Cats unless they can continue their good work from conference play of getting to the foul line. You’ll see two similarly-matched teams in Sacramento.

The Broncos run out an experienced and long front line, with 6’7” F Tyson Degenhart getting the hair-related headlines but everyone in their starting five deserving a profile. Head coach Leon Rice’s son Max is a 6’5” guard who shoots well, quickly, and often from deep (41.2% on over 5 attempts/gm), and 6’2” G Marcus Shaver will harass Buie bringing the ball up.

What the Broncos do that’ll make Northwestern’s defense a little tougher ask is play a lot more five-out or spread-floor offense: when the ‘Cats struggled against teams like Pitt or Penn State, it was because those clubs avoided the post traps and broke down Northwestern on the perimeter. I’m curious to watch how often Degenhart goes to work in the post versus off the dribble.

Where the ‘Cats have a chance is if they can force turnovers—and Boise State will provide some (11.2/gm)—and force the Broncos to use their bench depth. All of Boise’s starting five average double-digits and 28+ minutes a game, with the impacts of G Jace Whiting and C Lukas Milner being negligible (famous last words). Northwestern has been reticent to try and win games inside with Nicholson or Verhoeven, but the ability of Audige and Barnhizer to get to the cup could force a few fouls or lead to a couple Nicholson dunks.

Ultimately, know that Northwestern will give its seniors, Boo Buie and Chase Audige, a chance to shine in their last dance. UCLA’s defense will make the second round even uglier than the first—and Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez, Jr. are even more dangerous on the offense end. (A shout-out, of course, to Drew Pember and the Asheville Bulldogs.)

My head, in this region, says Boise State over Northwestern (first to 60 wins) and UCLA over the winner. Odd stats, though, include that Big Ten 7-seeds have won 8 in a row in the first round, and the Mountain West is just 1-11 in its last 12 NCAA Tournament games.

But my heart says Northwestern. Boise State is lifetime 0-8—a regular Nebraska—in the Dance, and the ‘Cats better manage their emotions after coming out a little too bothered in the Big Ten Tournament loss to Penn State. Northwestern by a million.



This poll is closed

  • 79%
    (42 votes)
  • 20%
    Boise State
    (11 votes)
53 votes total Vote Now


Who makes the Sweet Sixteen?

This poll is closed

  • 62%
    [2] UCLA
    (34 votes)
  • 29%
    [7] Northwestern
    (16 votes)
  • 5%
    [10] Boise State
    (3 votes)
  • 1%
    [15] UNC Asheville
    (1 vote)
54 votes total Vote Now