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Four storylines to follow during the 2020-2021 Northwestern men’s basketball season

This season should tell us a lot about the state of the program.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow marks the return of Northwestern men’s basketball, the only Big Ten team that has not yet begun its season. The Wildcats will look to start out strong against Arkansas-Pine Bluff at home as a part of Northwestern’s four-game nonconference slate.

Chris Collins’ squad likely won’t be contending for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but how the team is able to compete in conference play could indicate the trajectory of the program that has been on the decline since 2017.

Expectations are not high for Northwestern this upcoming season, but fans will certainly hope for a better result than last year’s 3-17 finish in Big Ten play. The question remains if and how this year’s squad has improved and whether or not it will clean up some of the issues that plagued the Wildcats last year.

Here are four key storylines to follow throughout this season:

The development of last year’s freshmen

Boo Buie, Robbie Beran and Ryan Young all played major minutes in their rookie seasons at Northwestern last year. As a group, they averaged over 23 minutes per game, and by the end of the season, all three had found themselves a spot in the starting lineup.

Their overall performances on both ends of the court were inconsistent and mediocre by Big Ten standards, leaving a lot to be desired on both offense and defense, but each freshman showed flashes of potential at varying points in the season.

Buie displayed his scoring abilities early last season, lighting up Michigan State for 26 points and DePaul for 25 points in back-to-back games. Beran gave fans a taste of his potential as a three-and-D player, averaging 12 points and six rebounds over a three-game stretch in January. Young showed that he could hang with the Big Ten’s best when he put up 17 points and eight boards to go along with two blocks against Jalen Smith and Maryland.

If just two of the these three sophomores can become more consistent and make a second-year improvement similar to that of Miller Kopp, Northwestern’s outlook on the season suddenly becomes much more positive. But regardless of NU’s final record, the level of play of these three players holds a lot of importance in determining the future of this team.

Northwestern’s ability to close out games

In stark contrast to this year’s football team, the Wildcats’ ability to close out basketball games last season was absolutely dreadful, sporting an abysmal 2-7 record in contests decided by five points or less. The Wildcats blew double-digit leads time and time again, with disappointing endings to games becoming an expected occurrence.

After these games, Chris Collins would harp on the team’s inexperience and youth as potential reasons as to why they had such a difficult time winning close contests. However, if Northwestern wants to climb its way out of the Big Ten cellar, it will need to improve in these situations and inexperience will no longer be a viable excuse.

A sign of hope is that NU did manage to close out one of these games at the end of last season. Against a ranked Penn State team, Northwestern let an early 14-point lead slip away by halftime. However, the ‘Cats ended up going punch for punch with the Nittany Lions in the second half before pulling away toward the end, with multiple players contributing key baskets down the stretch. It’s that type of ability to grind out wins against tough teams that will be crucial to Northwestern’s success this season.

The emergence of a star player

From Luka Garza to Ayo Dosumnu to Trayce Jackson-Davis, the Big Ten is chock full of established college stars and future NBA draft picks. Meanwhile, not only did Northwestern not have a player of that caliber last year, but it didn’t even have a definitive best player on the team.

Miller Kopp had the most consistently good season of anyone on the roster, but his lack of shot creating ability was a major deterrent for him in becoming the go-to guy. And although he seems to have gotten the respect of retired NBA veteran Kendrick Perkins this offseason, his strengths — like his catch-and-shoot prowess — are not often aligned with the top scoring option on a Division I basketball team.

It remains to be seen whether or not someone is able to step into that leading scorer, create-your-own-shot-at-any-time role for the Wildcats this season. If not, Northwestern might struggle to generate efficient offense once again.

Chris Collins’ job security

How these storylines pan out this season is largely a product of coaching, which rests squarely upon the shoulders of Chris Collins. The head coach is now entering his eighth year with Northwestern coming off his worst season yet. And since the ‘Cats made the NCAA Tournament in the 2016-17 season, they have had three consecutive losing seasons, each one worse than the last.

This doesn’t mean that Chris Collins’ job is in any danger entering this season. However, there should be expectations for him to begin succeeding this season. During last year’s 12-game losing streak, many began to question when — and if — Collins would start putting together results. It was then that our own Mac Stone wrote an op-ed for the case to place him on the hot seat, and the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein commented on the topic as well.

On paper, Collins has done a great job recruiting throughout his tenure, particularly with his 2021 recruiting class, but outside of 2017, it has yet to yield dividends in the form of wins. Even though Northwestern won’t be expected to win a lot this year, if another season goes by where his team fails to compete and his players don’t show signs of development, perhaps his seat will finally begin to warm up.