EVANSTON, Illinois — Sophomore guard Chase Audige hadn’t played a game since William & Mary lost to Delaware in the CAA Tournament Quarterfinals on March 10, 2019. So the nerves, understandably, like that of his teammates and coaches, were alive and well when Northwestern took the floor for the first time after a most unusual and unpredictable offseason.
“I couldn’t sleep last night because I was so excited to get back on the court and play with my teammates,” he said.
The nerves were palpable early for Audige and the Wildcats, who did not start clean, facing an Arkansas-Pine Bluff team rated 351st out of 357 Division I teams by KenPom. Junior Miller Kopp made two quick threes, but NU shot just 5-of-19 from the field through the first 10 minutes of the opening half. Outside of the sharpshooter, there wasn’t much success for the Wildcats until the transfer stepped in.
Then Audige found his stroke, hitting a layup and then triple on consecutive possessions as NU went on a 17-4 run to create breathing room before the end of the half. He went 4-of-4 during that run, including another triple and an athletic dunk to energize the socially distanced but lively bench.
The New York native finished the evening as the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting (3-of-6 from deep) despite playing only 21 minutes. He added five rebounds to his stat line. His efficiency was encouraging, but what also stood out was his athleticism and ability to score at all three levels.
Head coach Chris Collins said his lineup this year has more shooters and more firepower with Audige. The ‘Cats struggled in several facets offensively last season, but most of all they couldn’t take advantage of open shots. And when those good looks weren’t there, there was hardly a guy who could create his own shot.
“He can get his own shot, he can get out in transition and get the basket, he shoots threes, he gets fouled,” said Collins. “When you play in the Big Ten against really good defenses, you need guys that can create when things break down.”
Northwestern will face many stifling defense in conference play this year. Though it has more shooters, the fulcrum of the offense is still Kopp. After a breakout sophomore campaign in which he averaged 13.1 points per game, the Houston native was efficient again, leading all scorers with 18 points on 5-of-10 shooting, including an impressive 4-of-7 from beyond the arc.
Collins credited Kopp, who has now scored the first basket of the season for NU in each of the last three seasons, with settling the anxious team down via his makes. As UAPB began to key in on Kopp, Audige made his presence known, and his stretching of the floor is a big asset for a Wildcat team that had few outside threats a year ago.
“He puts so much pressure on the defense, he can do so many different things we didn’t have last year,” Kopp said. “He’s a really good iso player and a really good defender. He can guard the best player and then get a bucket, so he’s a guy the defense has to worry about.”
Quick halftime film room from @dan_olinger:— Inside NU (@insidenu) December 3, 2020
1. Nice debut for Chase Audige. He gets spun after helping down on the drive which isn't great, but this level of movement from a wing of his size is something Northwestern didn't have last year. Great contest here. pic.twitter.com/QIGYbDhUY7
NU’s guard play has been in flux the past couple of years. Anthony Gaines, now a senior, has seen plenty of playing time but is known for his defense. Ryan Taylor never panned out as the marksman many hoped he would be in 2018-19. Neither was a primary ball handler. Last year it was Pat Spencer, whom Collins described as a driver and attacker, with a freshman Boo Buie.
With Buie a year older, Gaines healthy and the addition of a true scoring threat in freshman Ty Berry, the position looks deeper than it has since 2018. But Audige is the X-factor. Collins said they wanted to have him last year, but NCAA rules mandate an undergraduate transfer must sit out one year. After 20 months since last playing in a Division I contest, Audige says he finally feels like he can be himself.
“We saw it in practice,” said Collins. “He was always the best player on the other team when we played preparing for Big Ten games. I’m really glad to have him, I think he’s going to be a great player for us, not a good one. I think he’s going to have a great career here.”