To say expectations were low for Northwestern entering the season is an understatement. Four of ESPN’s five panelists picked them to finish 13th in the conference, and the fifth slotted them in last place. WNUR’s Kevin Sweeney — the G.O.A.T. for all things college basketball — projected them at 14th as well in his preseason preview. Even our own roundtable of writers here at Inside NU predicted an average conference record of 4.5 wins and 15.5 losses.
With one-tenth of league play completed, the ‘Cats are nearly halfway to that win projection and in sole possession of first place in what many have dubbed the best conference in the country.
“These are guys that took a lot of crap last year. And me, as coaches [do], [I] took a lot of crap when things weren’t going well, and rightfully so,” Chris Collins said postgame. “All of a sudden you get a big win and you get a lot of praise that you’re not used to, and two days later you’ve got to bounce back and come to Bloomington and play in Assembly Hall against a terrific Indiana team.”
If Collins was worried about how his team might respond to its newfound success, Wednesday night certainly offered an encouraging answer. Northwestern held control nearly the entire night, save for a ten-minute stretch at the beginning of the second half when they were crippled by Pete Nance’s foul-induced absence. The junior forward finished with only nine points to his name, but his game-high plus-minus of +16 was indicative of just how much he meant to NU yet again.
“As we [the coaches] looked at our team and looked at our roster, [we thought] how could we be most successful with our pieces and how could we utilize his [Nance’s] skill set,” Collins said. “He’s a terrific passer and he’s a playmaker. We’re playing through him a lot and hitting him at the top of the floor and guys are cutting and they’re cutting hard. We’re getting different movements and actions that aren’t really set calls. We’re just playing basketball.”
That quote reads similar to how Steve Kerr has described the Golden State Warriors’ offense in years past, valuing motion and movement over rigid and repeated stationary plays. Northwestern has found success by running off-ball split action that the ‘Dubs popularized, giving Nance the rock in the center of the floor and killing teams by slipping to the basket when defenders over react to the conundrum of shooters screening for each other.
Ty Berry is 12-for-23 from three so far this season, and the threat of the sharpshooting freshman receiving a flare screen is scary enough that it causes Michigan State’s Joey Hauser to completely overreact, leaving a wide open path for Chase Audige to run through to the rim (also notice Nance keeping his eyes on Berry as he throws the pass, so as to not give away the easy dunk Audige is about to get).
While the ‘Cats were deprived of the total Nance-as-Draymond-Green experience against Indiana due to his limited playing time, his quick decision making and proclivity for slipping neat bounce passes in tight spaces still showed itself in spurts. Berry’s one handed-whip pass and Miller Kopp’s picture perfect three may be more recognizable on this following play, but it only happens because Nance has zero processing delay in getting this ball back to Berry, and his placement of the quick give-and-go couldn’t have been any better.
Northwestern has vaulted all the way up from 131st to 56th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive six games into the 2020-21 season, and Nance’s ability to mesh with shooting threats placed around him has been a huge part of that.
In his preseason media availability, Collins was open in saying that his team’s three-point shooting struggles had hindered them offensively.
“You look at our numbers — they haven’t been good, especially from the three-point line,” the Coach said back in early November. “Outside of Miller last year, everybody else was very up and down with their shooting. [Having better shooting] allows you to do a lot more things creatively.”
Turning Nance into the passing fulcrum of the team certainly falls under that category.
There are plenty of other driving factors behind the Wildcats’ turn in fortunes. Audige, for as inefficient as his play can be, provides some athletic pop and burst that wasn’t in the team’s toolset last year. His high release point crossed with a quick first step means he can get a shot off from almost anywhere on the court, evident in his 17-point bonanza in the second half being rife with pull-up jumpers.
Boo Buie has improved in almost every facet imaginable, canning 54.5 percent of his threes this year compared to 28.2 percent a year ago, and upping his assist rate to 36.8 percent, the 42nd best mark amongst all D-I players, per KenPom.
Even Robbie Beran, who’s still averaging under 10 points per game, has helped the ‘Cats by fulfilling the rim protector and floor spacer role as a big man, capable of playing alongside Nance in the starting lineup (Collins said postgame they do not yet know the extent of Beran’s injury).
But perhaps more important than any schematic development or improvement in individual talent is the change in mindset the team has experienced. Last season was filled to the brink with blown leads, as malaise seemingly piled onto the team with each passing loss. The fear following the meltdown against Pittsburgh two weeks ago was that this was the same team with the exact same problems, making for a predictably frustrating season script.
Two consecutive wins over the most accomplished basketball programs in the Big Ten later, and it’s clear that this team isn’t going to let that happen.
Northwestern got punched in the mouth with that 8-0 haymaker the Hoosiers threw midway through the second half, but instead of staggering backward and allowing the beating to continue, they stayed calm and grinded out enough body blows to win the fight.
“Quite frankly, these guys last year — we probably wouldn’t have responded to that run,” Collins said. “But these guys are different. They’ve grown up, they’re tough, they believe and they’re confident. They said, ‘Okay [Indiana] made their run, now let’s make our run back.”
The head coach said that following the team’s lone loss this season, a game in which they led for 39 minutes and 55 seconds of play, the ‘Cats were angry, not sad. They didn’t wallow in self pity and prognosticate a dismal season upon themselves, but came out with even more motivation to prove that they are in fact a different and better team in the 2020-21 season.
“After the Michigan State game and all this talk about a huge upset and all those kind of things, our guys were determined to make that not a one time thing. It was important to them to show that we can be competitive in this league this year,” Collins said.
The season is far from over, and Big Ten play does not get any easier the further the season goes, but early returns show that the Northwestern is well on their way to accomplishing that goal.