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Northwestern’s future shines in loss to MSU

In a year where development is the priority, Wildcat fans got a good, long glimpse of the team’s true potential.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

If you tuned in to Northwestern’s 77-72 loss to Michigan State, you got a sneak peek at the future of the program.

Make no mistake about it, the team wants to win. Chris Collins wants to win, the players want to win and the fans want to win. But in a year like the one we’re in, it’s important to maintain a sense of reality. And the most integral aspect of games across the 2019-20 season is developing players for the future.

“I’m disappointed as a competitor,” Collins said. “But we also know where we are. We have one of the youngest teams in college basketball. There’s gonna be a lot of experience things with this group.”

Members of the Wildcat faithful were already well aware that Northwestern isn’t going to amass many Big Ten wins. The talent and experience just isn’t there. But that doesn’t mean games like the one yesterday are worthless.

Boo Buie’s minutes, big time shots and experience in tough conference games will pay dividends down the road, and as the other young players step up, which many of them have done at various points already, they will be in that position as well. The biggest thing for NU in 2019-20 is to show energy and potential. They did both against the Spartans.

“I was really proud of our guys,” Collins said. “They just kept fighting, they hung in there, but in the second half we executed really well and Buie was fantastic. Hopefully it’s a sign of good things to come moving forward.”

Buie, a scorer who specializes from long range, has been struggling with a nagging thumb injury that has limited his ability to shoot the ball. But that changed on Wednesday, when the relatively undersized guard not only went 5-for-7 from beyond the arc, but went 26 minutes without a turnover while amassing four assists in an un-freshman-like effort, keeping Northwestern alive in a game where it was outmatched from the jump.

“I thought he was unbelievable tonight,” said Tom Izzo, head coach of MIchigan State. “He had what, 26 points? Unbelievable.”

However, it isn’t just Buie that caught the eye of the legendary coach. Izzo believes that the pieces are in place for the ‘Cats to have success in the future. They just have to grow.

“[Miller] Kopp, [Pete] Nance, they have all the ingredients,” Izzo said. “We were watching film before the game and we said, ‘boy do we like the pieces they have.’ They’re gonna be good. They’re gonna be really good.”

The ingredients that Izzo is referring to are those of the youngest team in the Big Ten. Outside of graduate transfer and pseudo-basketball freshman Pat Spencer, Collins’ rotation consists of four freshmen (Buie, Jared Jones, Robbie Beran and Ryan Young), three sophomores (Kopp, Nance and Greer) and two upperclassmen (Anthony Gaines and A.J. Turner). Most of the players that you’re seeing on the court will only get better during their time in Evanston, and they’ll have years to mesh and grow together.

“[Collins] has a damn good team, they’re a little young right now, but it’s gonna be a damn good team,” Izzo said. “Things are gonna start hopping around here, people should pack this place with purple because he’s got guys that are fun to follow.”

There are going to be some low lows with this squad. Some have already been reached (see: Merrimack, Radford). But this is a group that’s only going to improve as the year goes on. And it’s already showcasing the ingredients necessary to get significantly better as the years go by.

It’s these tough, physical and high pressure contests that will force Northwestern’s young core to grow and be ready to go in the future. In past years, Chris Collins’ squads have had a few good showings early in non-conference play (see Michigan last season, for example) before more or less fizzling down the stretch.

For this team to develop the way they need to, their young, talented players must battle through growing pains throughout Big Ten play without losing the energy they brought yesterday night. Wednesday’s game was a start, and an impressive one at that, especially for the likes of Buie.

Now, that competitive fire needs to remain consistent, even if the performances don’t necessarily match it.