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Northwestern looks lost when Buie struggles

This team has a bunch of guys who can score, but it doesn’t work right when its electric point guard is off.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Many things have gone wrong during Northwestern’s (6-5, 3-4 Big Ten) four-game losing streak. Some haven’t been the Wildcats’ fault, like Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon catching fire from three or Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson being very good.

But there’s been one constant during the current skid, that if not snapped soon, threatens to derail the Wildcats’ surprise 3-0 start in the Big Ten and their season.

That constant is Boo Buie. The sophomore point guard struggled again in NU’s 81-71 loss to Ohio State (10-3, 4-3) on Wednesday night in Columbus, continuing the trend of Northwestern following Buie. In 35 minutes on the floor, he made just one of nine field goal attempts, scoring just five points. His drives were wild and his three-point attempts were deep.

Things just haven’t been right for Buie over the past four games, as he’s been held scoreless in two of them and has totaled just seven points on 2-of-29 shooting. After nailing a deep, contested triple to lift the ‘Cats over the same Buckeyes on December 26, Buie has connected on just one of his last 13 tries from beyond the arc.

There’s a clear trend to Northwestern’s successes and failures, and they seem to hinge on the Wildcats’ point guard. In NU’s six wins, he’s averaged 14.5 points and shot a healthy 50% from the field (and a more unsustainable 54% from three). Teams have been effective in stymieing NU’s most electric player, according to head coach Chris Collins, by playing him with two guys on a lot of pick and rolls.

“When your point guard is trying to get back on track, it’s gonna hurt any team,” Collins said. “He’s a big part of what we do. I thought he played right to start the game. He got a few looks in the first half, he missed a drive. I just want him to stay confident and keep playing his game. I feel like he’s the kind of kid who, if he sees the ball go in, it can turn quickly for him.”

Indeed, Buie scored five quick points late in the second half, including a three that helped NU come within one of Ohio State at the under-four media timeout. Northwestern made several mini-pushes to keep itself within single digits, but it wasted a few opportunities and hardly felt in control.

In fact, without reliable production from Buie, it’s taken Herculean one-man efforts to keep NU within shouting distance in some of these games. At No. 10 Iowa, Pete Nance poured in 17 points in the first half to keep the ‘Cats within nine at halftime and 10 points before the half in Ann Arbor before things developed into a blowout. In Columbus, Chase Audige’s 21 first-half points were the only thing allowing NU to mount a late charge.

The three-point battle, which NU lost in a big way Wednesday, is also tied to Buie. The free-wheeling point guard has flashed his range before, but as he has struggled to hit from deep, so have his teammates. Despite a 44% three-point performance against Iowa that was in vain, Collins’ squad has shot below 30% from downtown in its past three games.

“We’ve got to continue to be creative to try to get him in the open court to try to give him some space where he can attack and see the ball go in a little bit,” Collins said.”

One of the Wildcats’ talking points has been how they have confidence in a litany of scorers, that anyone can pick up the slack on a given night. They’re not wrong. There have been nights when Audige takes over, or Kopp won’t miss or Nance shows his improvement. But without Buie producing, it has hardly mattered.

Northwestern desperately needs Buie to break out of this rut, and the coaching staff must help him through it. It was just a few weeks ago that Collins praised Buie for his maturation and growth in his second year, and this would be an inopportune time for the point guard to hit a sophomore wall. The schedule doesn’t get any easier, as NU faces top 10-rated KenPom squads Iowa and Wisconsin in the next week.

“I’ve always said that the the answers are always in the gym,” Collins said. “I’ve always been taught that you get in the gym, you work hard, you keep your mind right, you stay focused on the right things and good things will happen. There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll bounce back. And hopefully it’ll be on on Sunday, because we’re definitely going to need him to be at his best.”