In its comeback wins against Indiana and Ohio State, Northwestern men’s basketball is showing a certain character it lacked last season. Even when the Wildcats have gotten down late in second halves, they haven’t folded. Head coach Chris Collins’ postgame refrain is no longer “we’re young” but rather “we were young last year, so we could grow up this year.”
After a year in which NU went 8-23 and just 3-17 in the Big Ten, NU has already matched its conference win total from last year in just one week, and they’re showing those frustrating growing pains weren’t for naught.
The Wildcats (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten) edged physical and feisty No. 23 Ohio State (7-2, 1-2) 71-70 on Saturday afternoon to remain undefeated in conference play and win their third-straight B1G game for the first time since January 2017.
Ohio State controlled most of the second half, out-rebounding NU 19-12 and 6-0 on the offensive boards and outscoring them 13-0 on second chances. The Buckeyes opened up a seven-point advantage with 6:59 left and led 66-61 with 5:10 to go.
Then Northwestern re-emerged. Collins elected to trot out a two-big lineup featuring Ryan Young and Pete Nance to combat OSU’s physicality, and the Wildcats forced the Buckeyes into five straight empty possessions and chipped away at the deficit. They closed the game on a 14-6 run, shooting 5-of-7 while holding Ohio State to 2-of-8 from the field during that span.
There’s not a secret recipe to the Wildcats’ recent victories save for experience, and Collins said he’s not saying anything special in those late-game huddles. With a maturing team that has hit the bottom before, the players lead themselves, and he focuses on the actual coaching. He’s most pleased with the litany of leaders who’ve emerged, saying his squad isn’t a one-leader team.
“You hear Miller [Kopp], you hear Pete [Nance], you hear Anthony Gaines,” he said. “Boo’s [Buie] really coming of age as our point guard. I’m really pleased with how he’s maturing as a young point guard in this league and his leadership, and how efficiently he’s playing. You’re seeing his game really mature. We have a lot of guys who feel like they can talk and hold each other accountable. I’ve always felt that when you have a really good connected team when everyone takes ownership of what you’re doing and everyone feels like they can say stuff.”
Whether it’s on the court or in the huddle, the Wildcats have pointed to the volume of guys they have trust in and how that helps take the burden off of one player. Buie, Nance and Ty Berry carried the day against No. 4 Michigan State, while four Wildcats, led by Chase Audige’s sublime second half, scored in double figures at Indiana. On Saturday, Kopp poured in 23 points (one shy of his career high), while Buie added 10 in the second half and Audige again made the plays in crunch time.
There’s a sense of connectedness amongst the players, the majority of whom experienced all the late-game heartbreak from a year ago. Seven of the nine guys with the most minutes played this year are returners. Gaines, the captain, may be the lone senior, but that doesn’t mean an extra role has fallen on him.
Buie, a true sophomore who lacked consistency after returning from an injury last winter, said the group lacked leadership and didn’t know what to expect in the Big Ten. He said there are up to six guys who take charge, including himself since he’s got the ball in his hands a lot and guys are often going to look to him.
As Northwestern’s primary guard, he’s elevated his game, averaging 14.4 points and 5.3 assists per game while he’s upped his shooting by nine percentage points and his three-point shooting from 28 percent to 50 percent. He hit what ended up being the game-winning three-pointer over CJ Walker with 1:04 left and then ripped away a key rebound from EJ Liddell with two seconds left.
“This year, with a couple guys knowing what it takes to win and all relatively being in the same class area, I feel like there’s a mutual respect between us sophomores and the juniors above us that we just really want to win,” said Buie. “So we have to win. We know, in order to win in this league, we got to play hard and be connected. And if you’re not connected, you don’t have a chance.”
Kopp, who said he wanted to be a better leader this season, said his two previous years of experience give him a perspective many of the younger guys don’t have. He’s seen the highs and the lows and looking back on it, called last year’s struggles a blessing in disguise because they’ve learned from those situations.
“We’ve changed, we’ve made the most of those situations,” said NU’s leading scorer. “We’re not the same team as we were last year or the year before. We made sure to focus on those things that gave us problems last year.”
The Wildcats insist they’re different, and they have a record that thus far backs it up. After suffering through last year together, they have a newfound resolve. They believe they’re supposed to win, and in a Big Ten season that’s going to require a healthy dose of perseverance, it’s their real-time growth that will make all the difference.