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Dominant upset upends expectations for Northwestern men’s basketball

Sunday night’s 14-point win over #4 Michigan State was not only program-defining, but potentially program-altering.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Illinois — With 15:55 to play in the first half at around 6:06 p.m. on Sunday, Boo Buie’s rather innocuous three gave Northwestern (4-1) its first lead of the game against fourth-ranked Michigan State (6-1). From that point forward, the Spartans somehow never reclaimed it: the Wildcats outshot, out-executed, and simply outplayed MSU over the ensuing 36 minutes en route to one of the most impressive wins in program history, a 79-65 statement that marked their first victory over a top-five opponent in 41 years.

“We want to take a step forwards this year,” said head coach Chris Collins after the game when asked about how the significance of the win. “We kinda hit the reset button last year, and said we’re gonna bring in a lot of young kids, and we’re gonna play ‘em, and we’re gonna develop ‘em, and when you do that you’re gonna go through some growing pains....For us to take that step forward, you’ve gotta have some big wins.”

They don’t come much bigger than this one. To control a national power essentially from tip to buzzer, even one that had an uncharacteristically poor shooting night, takes a special kind of effort. In their Big Ten opener, the Wildcats brought an effort that made them, not their marquee opponents, look like the fourth-ranked team in the country.

As Collins emphasized postgame, his team, avoiding the late-game struggles that have plagued them when holding leads during the past few years, responded to every Michigan State spurt. Typically, either a triple from true first-year Ty Berry (3-for-4 from beyond the arc) or, more often, any kind of bucket from Buie, halted the Spartans in their tracks. The sophomore upped the ante from his former career-high of 26 points in 26 minutes against MSU a year ago by dropping 30 in just 24 this time around,

“I’ve always felt, since I got here, that the standard for Big Ten basketball is Coach Izzo and his program,” said Collins. “To be able to come out tonight, in our first game, and put 40 minutes together, withstand the runs...I’m just really proud of the guys.”

As one breaks down the components of both a jaw-dropping result and a stunning 40-minute series of possessions taken as a whole, crucial components for the future are unsurprisingly revealed. The former piece of Pete Nance’s 15 points and 12 rebounds came on just eight shots, and the overall performance played out across 29 minutes during which the junior served as the true center of Northwestern’s defense while also initiating plenty of offense from the top.

The non-box score qualities of players like Chase Audige, Miller Kopp, and Robbie Beran, none of whom scored near their potential but each of whom impressed defensively, were vital as well.

Importantly, all of it allowed for hope this victory wasn’t just a one-off upset. Northwestern shooting at a clip 14 percentage points higher (22 percentage points from deep) than its opponent does not seem all that repeatable. Just about every other aspect, though, from fighting its opponent to a draw on the boards, to staying away from live-ball turnovers, and even feeding the hot hand when necessary, felt like a potential element of relatively consistent victories in the toughest conference in America.

“I think we have a lot of guys who can dribble, pass, and shoot,” said Buie, demurring his starring role as much as anyone can after thoroughly torching one of the apparent best teams in the nation. “Whoever’s night it is, we just try to get them the ball, and we just make sure that we can play hard and defend.”

On Sunday, that versatility certainly served Northwestern well, and Collins’ apparently complete confidence in the nine players he rotates, all of whom played between 11 and 32 minutes, will almost certainly prove significant down the stretch in the Big Ten grind. Even taking potential COVID complications out of the equation, the Wildcats are staring down one of the hardest roads out there when it comes to potential surprise contention for a .500 overall record and what would almost certainly be, at that point, NCAA Tournament consideration.

Of their next 17 games, each is rated as a Tier-A matchup by KenPom. 15 of the next 16 come against squads in the top 25 via the KenPom ratings. If you want to get a bit more traditional, six of their next seven and 10 of their next 12 will feature opposing teams that currently reside within the AP’s Top 25. These are the exact situations where the Wildcats have come unglued in each of the past three seasons.

“It’s one game,” Collins said unprompted, seemingly addressing those potential concerns directly. “I told the guys afterwards, there’s gonna be a lot talked about with how highly Michigan State is ranked and all that, but everybody in our league is ranked like that. So we’re gonna have games like this every night.”

With the meat of its schedule knocking on the door, Northwestern even still has yet to prove itself when it comes to finishing close games. But in Sunday’s paradigm-shifting win, every other piece of the puzzle was there. Buie and Nance in particular look like stars in the making, and they certainly appear to have more than enough help to win plenty of games most before the season would’ve said they shouldn’t win.

The win serves as another reminder that there are truly no nights off in this iteration of the Big Ten. After three full seasons of moving backwards, which included a blown 27-point lead to No. 2 Michigan State in 2018 and several second-half breakdowns last year, Sunday’s drubbing tantalizingly laid out Northwestern’s promise. This victory has the potential to be that one that puts the train back on the tracks.