It didn’t take long for Northwestern fans to get their answer to arguably the program’s biggest question for the 2019-20 season after an offseason that allowed for many of them.
When Chris Collins announced back in June that the program had secured former Loyola Maryland lacrosse star Pat Spencer for his final year of NCAA eligibility, many – including us – were skeptical.
Could Spencer really make the transition back to basketball after four years off the court? Chris Collins and this NU program were so desperate that they had to go all the way to a different sports to find their point guard for this season?
But on Monday night, Spencer officially put those offseason concerns to bed.
After a few decent, yet somewhat shaky performances to start the season, the former lacrosse superstar made it known against Bradley that the answer is yes — an athlete of his caliber is absolutely capable of transitioning from one Division 1 sport to another. Spencer’s 23 points and 8 assists carried the Wildcats to a commanding 28-point victory against a solid mid-major squad coming off an NCAA tournament appearance.
Attacking the paint off the pick-and-roll and knocking down threes off the dribble, he looked like the versatile point guard Chris Collins’ team was missing all of last season. Spencer was comfortable and confident on the floor, but most importantly, he looked like a four-year veteran ready to put the team on his shoulders.
“We start knocking down the open [shots] and some other things open up on the floor,” Spencer said postgame. “They have to push up on the ball screens, and everything opened up. Ryan [Young] was getting some rolls. And we were getting some good kick outs. We just had a good flow.”
The point guard was the best player on the floor all night, and it wasn’t really close. NU got solid contributions from other key players as well, particularly Miller Kopp and Anthony Gaines, but make no mistake, this was Spencer’s night.
“He’s just confident,” Kopp said of the point guard after the game. “He attacks when he needs to and when he sees his open lane. [What Spencer’s doing] is not a surprise to any of us.”
One strong game isn’t enough to conclude that the grad transfer is fully adjusted and ready for what’s to come in Big Ten play, especially given how much he struggled in games against teams like Radford and Norfolk State. Great performances like Monday don’t wipe away the poor ones, but they give us a look at the type of player Spencer can be on any given night.
And given how much Chris Collins’ team lacked a guard like Spencer last year — a player that can penetrate at will and create for himself/others from the lead guard slot — seeing what he did Monday night should breed hope for what’s to come this season.
The Wildcats will still almost certainly find themselves toward the bottom of the Big Ten standings-wise by the end of the grueling conference slate, but as they showed in the tournament opener against Bradley, this team has the individual talent to put together some really strong showings on any given night.
“I thought we had a competitive edge to us,” Collins said after the Bradley game. “In those games that we loss, I thought the other teams brought the fight to us and we played on our heels...We played like an edgy, chippy team that we’re gonna have to be in order to win at this level.”
Thanks to Monday’s dominant win, the program now finds itself in an unfamiliar position with a “championship game” against the Pittsburgh Panthers. Sure, it wouldn’t be the most prestigious of titles to bring back to Evanston. However, for a young team vying for confidence and respect, taking down a formidable Pitt opponent could do a whole lot for their confidence moving forward.
Collins has stressed multiple times in the buildup to this week how he’s never won one of these early season tournaments, and Wednesday’s matchup presents as good a chance as any he’s had in his seven years at the helm of this program. Northwestern has shown flashes of promise this year, but what it has yet to do, somewhat unsurprisingly, is put together back-to-back strong performances.
After the Providence win earlier this month, the Wildcats came out flat and sputtered their way to a pitiful performance at home against Radford. Now, after the team’s most convincing win of the season, the table is set for NU to knock off Pitt and snag some critical early season momentum heading into a tougher December slate.
Collins shouldn’t have a problem getting his team ready as he looks to take down his former Duke teammate and current Pitt head coach Jeff Capel in Wednesday’s final.
“Jeff is like a brother to me,” Collins said Monday. We talk almost every day, honestly. I really wanted him to win, and I know he wanted me to win, and we’ll both compete like crazy, like brothers would. I know my guys will be ready to go and I know so will his. It should be a fun game.”