The Wildcats went 1-1 during their trip to Newark, New Jersey, earlier this week, losing their first game to the Providence Friars 77-72 before beating the Georgia Bulldogs in definitive fashion by a score of 78-62. Boo Buie led the team in scoring in both games, scoring 23 vs Providence and 22 against the Bulldogs, while having a combined 10 assists in the ‘Cats’ third-place finish. Pete Nance and Ryan Young also contributed heavily in the scoring column, with the two big men combining for 60 in the two games at the Prudential Center. Here are three takeaways from Northwestern’s two games in the Legends Classic.
This Wildcats team may be more resilient than years prior
If you caught any of the games from Northwestern’s 12-game losing streak last season, you’d know that the ‘Cats often fell apart late, by either blowing leads or allowing opponents to pull away in the latter part of the second half. Despite what either of the final score may suggest, this was not the case in either of the Cat’s Legends Classic games.
Starting with their game against the Friars, Northwestern didn’t lead for a single second on Monday. Yet, despite being down nine at half and trailing 55-37 with under 12 to play, Northwestern kept fighting to cut the lead to six less than eight minutes later. Following this, the Friars extended their lead back to double-digits with a pair of Noah Horchler threes that put Providence up 12 with under a minute left. Still, with the game all but over, the ‘Cats were diving for loose balls and giving their all on both ends, to make it slightly interesting before falling by a margin of five.
The third-place game against Georgia had an entirely different trajectory, with the ‘Cats going into the half up 20 after Ryan Greer’s spectacular, buzzer-beating half-court heave. Of course, if you watched the ‘Cats last year you’d know that no lead is safe with Northwestern, as Georgia was able to cut the lead in half to make it 52-62 with 9:44 remaining. But this time, Northwestern was able to close it out, thanks in large part than to their defense, holding the Bulldogs scoreless for five straight minutes and eventually winning by a comfortable score of 78-62.
Both these games showed us something that we didn’t see last year, as the ‘Cats fought back after getting punched in the mouth against Providence, and didn’t let a run get out of hand against Georgia. The resilience of Collins’ unit was impressive and a great Big Ten play nears.
Chris Collins’ defense is going to be interesting as per usual
Head Coach Chris Collins has seemingly experimented with every type of defense known to man during his nine years with the Wildcats, and these past two games are no exception. Due in large part to the Friars ridiculous shooting start from behind the arc, Collins left his man defense moved to an extended 3-2 defense with all three guards defending from or beyond the three-point line.
Collins’ often put Casey Simmons up top with Northwestern’s smaller guards on the wings, because of Simmons’ length and lateral quickness. Although the Friars stayed hot for the entire afternoon, finishing the game 14-for-29 from three, this defense allowed Northwestern to hide some of their weaker guard defenders and get more of a contest on Providence’s shooters.
Collins continued mixing up man and zone defense against Georgia, which briefly confused the opposition’s offense and allowed Northwestern to play their smaller guards together. With these teams having substantially more athletic players than the four teams the ‘Cats played earlier this year, expect Collins to mix up the defensive schemes often with the Big Ten having an abundance of uber talented players who will be difficult to match up with man-to-man.
Julian Roper II has a bright future ahead of him
From simply looking at his box score in the games from earlier this week, you may be surprised that the freshman has an entire section of this article dedicated to him. However, Julian Roper II showed flashes on both sides of the ball, which should keep him in the rotation even when Chase Audige eventually returns.
Starting with his defense, the Detroit native has the tools to be an elite defender, with the freshman averaging 1.3 steals per game despite playing less than 18 minutes per contest. His aggressive playstyle caused him some trouble, as he picked up three fouls in only nine minutes of action against Georgia. However, his defensive potential is clear, and considering that Northwestern’s current guards are not particularly great on or off the ball (with the exception of Chase Audige), he will be needed this season and going forward to matchup with the superb guards the Big Ten has to offer.
On the offensive end, Roper showed signs that he can be useful as both a facilitator and scorer, with five points and four assists in 23 minutes against Providence. Roper lost a mere two games in his final two high school seasons, and it shows in his play style, with him impacting the game in a positive manner regardless of whether it shows up in the box score. Expect the freshman to only get better as the games and years go on, as he could be a major contributor in the not too distant future.