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Without one clear leader, Northwestern relies on a collective effort to win

The Wildcats flexed their depth against two weak nonconference opponents as they prepare for bigger challenges ahead.

Heading into the 2020-2021 men’s basketball season, the question remained of who would claim the title of Northwestern’s best player. With Pat Spencer graduated, junior Miller Kopp seemed like the easy choice as last season’s leading scorer returning with another year under his belt. The team was hopeful for what sophomore transfer Chase Audige and true freshman Ty Berry could bring to the picture, but as the season approached, Chris Collins was adamant that there was no obvious starting lineup.

After watching the Wildcats’ first two games, Collins’ statement has become increasingly clear as NU appears to have more depth and capable contributors than before.

“We have nine deep, and I’m comfortable putting all of those guys in the game,” Collins said. “I think we’re the kind of team where we don’t have that one guy that we’re counting on to get 25 a night. I think we have a lot of different guys on a given night that can give us production and hopefully that can work in our favor as we move on in the season.”

In Northwestern’s 111-66 demolition of Chicago State, each of the nine rotation players contributed significantly. Five players finished in double-digit scoring while the other four brought the intangibles that helped solidify such a dominant win.

Chase Audige had another standout night with 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists despite a mediocre 5-of-17 shooting performance. However, his 9-of-10 makes from the charity stripe helped him solidify a spot in the starting lineup. Audige’s fellow newcomer Berry made a noticeable impact as well. After being held scoreless in the first half on 0-of-5 shooting, Berry scored 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the second half. His plus-minus shot up from two in the first half to 25 in the second, and he helped NU extend its 16-point halftime margin to a 45-point victory.

Collins said it’s not just the new additions who make a difference, but the overall improvement of his more experienced players.

Kopp and Robbie Beran were both incredibly efficient scoring the ball. Kopp put up 16 points on just five shots and didn’t miss from deep, while Beran added 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting with five rebounds.

In addition, Northwestern’s post players were consistent and reliable as Ryan Young and Pete Nance battled down low to combine for 20 points, 14 rebounds five assists and two steals.

And finally, Anthony Gaines, Boo Buie and Ryan Greer brought the intangibles as the lone senior recorded 12 rebounds while Buie and Greer registered seven and four assists, respectively.

“It’s a collective approach,” Beran said. “I think everybody does a good job in practice sharing the wealth. There’s not the one guy that everybody needs to key into. I think that makes us a pretty difficult matchup. This year, I think we have a more balanced load, and then whoever’s night is going, we’re making a collective effort to find them.”

While, yes, NU faced a winless team that hadn’t scored upwards of 61 points all season, the Wildcats stayed composed with few errors along the way — something that was lacking when a year ago when the Wildcats dropped buy games against Merrimack, Radford and Hartford. There’s no doubt that the future opponents will be much more difficult, but fixing past mistakes early is the first step to improvement.

Northwestern may struggle against Big Ten powerhouses, but the Wildcats hope to use their team approach winning to steal some wins in conference play. As Beran said, having nine capable starters not only makes it harder for other teams to match up against them, but it keeps the likelihood of having an off day low with a number of players ready to step up to fill any gaps.

The Wildcats don’t have a Luka Garza or Ayo Dosunmu to rely on game after game, so their style of play has to be more strategic. Their games will be won in transition or by out-hustling opponents, like NU did tonight with its 22 second-chance points, 19 fast-break points, 26 points off turnovers and 13 offensive boards.

“I want to play faster,” Collins said. “We know coming into the league, teams do a good job of slowing you up in transition a little bit. I just feel we’re going to be at our best if we can get out. We have a lot of skilled guys. When we can use our bench, you can stay at a fast pace. That’s certainly what we’ve practiced all offseason and what we want to take into the rest of the season. That’s how we want to play.”

Northwestern’s path to victory this season may not be conventional nor what the team is used to, but everyone contributing equally adds unique depth to this team that has been lacking in recent years and poses a new challenge for opponents to overcome.

“We have a lot of great guys and a lot of great players,” Berry said. “We always try make the extra pass because after one person gets a bucket, and then another person gets a bucket it gets contagious, and it’s really hard to guard after that.”