What a weird year 2020-21 was for Northwestern. They lost by just 1 point to Pittsburgh early, but then beat Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State to improve to 7-1 and jump to #19 in the AP Poll. Yep, these Wildcats were ranked at one point last year. But they then lost 13 in a row! They then won 3 in a row to finish the regular season before falling to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament. What a ride.
Miller Kopp transfers out to Indiana, and Anthony Gaines to Siena, but the everyone else from last year returns. This will be Chris Collins’ 9th year and with only the one NCAA Tournament appearance, who knows how many more non-Tournament years Northwestern will take. Collins’ has brought in some talented recruits over the past few years and with almost everyone returning, this should be Collins’ best team since that 2017 Tournament team.
The immediate strength of this team is the frontcourt. Pete Nance (the highest rated prospect in Northwestern history) returns for his senior season. Every year it seems he’s a player we’re talking about having a breakout year. And although he had a much more efficient year last year, we’re still waiting on the big breakout. I’d love to see him take another step and be the focal point of some of Northwestern’s sets.
Ryan Young started every game his freshman year, but shifted to a bench role last year when Collins began starting Nance at the 5. Young can be a beast on the glass and has show to be patient big, with good footwork on the low post. NU can play through him at times.
Robbie Beran is a stretch-4 who can knock down three and allowed the Wildcats to play with 5-out when on the floor with Nance, opening up a lot of space for NU. Beran was the 3rd highest rated recruit when he came to Northwestern two years ago.
Add in the wildcard forward in Fairleigh Dickinson grad transfer Elyjah Williams. At 6’7 220, Williams has a tough to move frame. He’s physical, but also pretty quick and comfortable handling the ball. He even shot 42% (50 attempts) from three last year. He can defend multiple positions, allowing for Collins to even play him at the three if they want a big lineup. Williams was 3rd Team All-NEC last season at FDU.
Boo Buie returns at point for the Cats. Buie was a great representation of Northwestern’s season. He started the year on fire, dropped 30 on Michigan State, but then went dormant as the Wildcats hit their 13-game slide. Buie was still 4th in the Big Ten in assist rate and will hopefully take another step as a junior.
Chase Audige is probably the most likely player to lead this team in scoring, but he was just way too streaky last year. We saw him get hot in a hurry, but also have games were he definitely a negative out there. He can be a lockdown defender that helps this team whether he scores or not, but his two-way ability gives him the potential to be the most valuable player on this team.
Ty Berry and Ryan Greer are more role/depth guys. We haven’t seen much of Ty Berry yet, but he can really shoot it from deep.
Freshmen Casey Simmons, Brooks Barnhizer and Julian Roper could get some time at the 2/3. Collins has raved about Simmons; a lanky wing who was ranked the #101 recruit by 247 sports. Barnhizer can shoot it and makes smart decisions off the bounce, regarded as a smart player who could adjust quickly. Roper is a scorer, he can drive and shoot, but might need the most time of the three to adjust to the speed of the college game.
Northwestern has typically been a good defensive team under Collins and I expect that to continue. They make opponents take tough shots. Where they need to improve is on offense. They had times last year where they’d just go cold for stretches and all of a sudden be out of the game. It doesn’t help that they don’t crash the glass (Collins prioritizes getting back on defense). They need to work for better shots (too jump shot reliant last year) and feed the post more often. That should help reduce the streakiness as Northwestern lived and died with Buie and Audige last year.
This should be one of the better teams Collins has had at Northwestern, but the Big Ten is stacked once again, so it won’t be easy.
Northwestern opens the season at home on November 9th against Eastern Illinois.