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ROUNDTABLE: One bold prediction for the 2021-22 men’s basketball season

You might be surprised just how many of us think the ‘Cats have a shot to be dancing in March this year.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Need a break from this discouraging football season? Never fear, the Northwestern men’s basketball team is here! (Hey, stop laughing, that’s not nice)

A team that has faced a lot of down times the last few years seems to be on the up-and-up to many, so each of us dished our boldest prediction prior to the 2021-22 campaign. Enjoy!

Daniel Olinger: Casey Simmons gets real rotation minutes and starts a few games toward the end of the season

On a roster as veteran-laden as Northwestern’s is for this upcoming season, non-superstar freshmen rarely see the court, as coaches rely on the players they’ve built their program with over the years. However, Simmons brings a combination of length and athleticism at the wing position that Northwestern has sorely missed the past few seasons. So much so, that Chase Audige, for all his faults (most of them coinciding with TS% and decision making), was still a positive addition for the ‘Cats simply due to the his plus burst and wingspan in that archetype.

Simmons was NU’s highest-ranked recruit of this incoming class, and he already got the chance to start in the team’s exhibition vs. Lindenwood with Audige and Ryan Young sidelined with minor injuries. He needs to add strength and polish to his offensive game (as most freshmen do), but versatile wings are the key to unlocking the best lineups in basketball, and Simmons profiles as one of Northwestern’s best options those potential five-man units.

Ben Chasen: Ty Berry breaks out, helping NU get to the bubble

Do y’all remember Northwestern’s 79-65 upset of then-undefeated No. 4 Michigan State on December 20, 2020? I sure do.

In putting up 12 points while shooting 4-for-5 (including 3-for-4 from beyond the arc) and adding three steals and an assist, Ty Berry (a true freshman at the time) showed all of the Big Ten what he was capable of. Berry’s season wound up being much more tumultuous than anyone could’ve expected, and he finished with a stat line of 5.1 points a game while shooting only 40.2 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from three, but the ability he showed against Sparty doesn’t simply go away. I don’t know whether he will be the team’s anchor this season, but his ability to create his own shot and his defensive peskiness will prove essential to Northwestern at various points in the year. All in all, more consistent performance at a high-level from Berry will be crucial to the ‘Cats winding up where I expect them to in March of 2022: either back in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time ever, or just on the cutting room floor of the committee.

Mac Stone: The ‘Cats make the tournament

You want bold? I’ll give you bold. Someone had to say it, and while it may make me look stupid in a couple months, I do think that the NCAA tournament is NU’s true ceiling. They may not make it as a high seed, but if they’re going to qualify, this will be the year to do so. The ‘Cats could be a surprise team on a national level if they play up to their potential this season, but how likely that is remains to be seen. I believe that with a somewhat weaker Big Ten, combined with some new incoming talent like Casey Simmons now on the roster and further veteran development, Northwestern can make it to the Big Dance. You wanted bold, so I gave you bold.

Jacob Brown: This is Chris Collins’ Final Year at Northwestern

Not exactly bold, but I think the time is finally coming. After wasting two of the program’s top talents in Robbie Beran and Pete Nance, demonstrating that he has no idea how to run an offense, and losing his safety blanket in Jim Phillips, Collins finally gets canned after NU has another disappointing season. This was CC’s year to turn things around. He was going to have his stars peaking together.... and then lost Anthony Gaines to Sienna, and Miller Kopp to Indiana, who may have taken a shot at Collins when explaining why he wanted to play under Mike Woodson, saying: “I have a lot of untapped potential to my game.” Northwestern Men’s Basketball is currently miserable, and new Athletic Director Gragg knows he has to make a change if things don’t go well this year (which they likely won’t). Between a roster that is prepared for huge turnover, the team’s lack of success and Gragg’s friendship with Dennis Gates, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Cleveland State coach was leading the Wildcats next year. With that said, highly touted recruits Casey Simmons, Ju Roper, and Roman Brumbaugh (class of 2022) are all huge gets for Collins, and would likely transfer or de-commit if CC were fired, which may make the cut a bit harder to do, but it’s still the right move in the end.

Ben Cooper: All-Big Ten Boo Buie

In March of 2022, the Northwestern Wildcats will do something that they haven’t done since 2017. Of course, I am not predicting that Northwestern will reach the Big Dance for the second time in program history; I’m referring to the fact that the Cats will have a player selected to an All-Big Ten team for the first time since Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsay earned the honor in 2017. As you can see by the heading, I don’t foresee the top 2 leading scorers in Chase Audige or Pete Nance taking home this honor, as junior Boo Buie will take a huge leap in his game and become the bona fide star for the Cats’ in 2021-22. The addition of Buie’s half brother, Talor Battle, to the coaching staff will only contribute to the now upperclassman’s season, as I expect him to improve his numbers as both a scorer and facilitator to earn himself All-Big Ten honors.

Michael Barthelemy: Ty Berry will be the team’s leading scorer

The backcourt is a pretty crowded area with Boo Buie, Chase Audige and now Julian Roper II and Casey Simmons. But, based upon how the coaching staff has talked up Berry, I think he is poised for a breakout role. Without a distinguished small forward, I think NU will run a lot of three-guard rotations, which will allow Berry to keep his minutes up and thrive while being an under the radar scoring threat early in the season. As a freshman, Berry shot an impressive 37% from beyond the arc, and his pure shooting ability will give him plenty of opportunities to make big shots in games.

Didi Jin: Northwestern will have more wins than losses in conference play

In the last 60 years, Northwestern men’s basketball has accomplished this feat just twice; once more recently in the 2016-17 season that saw the ‘Cats earn its first-ever bid to March Madness, and once in the 1967-68 season, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lou Alcindor) was playing college basketball. In a few short months, the 2021-22 Northwestern squad will be able to join those two famed squads in glorious purple history. Led by a group of veterans that have been molded by losing streak after losing streak and young talent that is as good as Evanston has ever seen, the ‘Cats will shock the world once again by causing upset after upset across the Midwest en route to a bid to the Big Dance. And to the elation of Northwestern fans living in Chicago, there will be no sponsored Wrigleyville happy hour.

Ignacio Dowling: Chase Audige makes the Big Ten All-Defensive Team

Since Vic Law earned the honor in 2017, no Wildcats have been named to the All-Defensive Team, but Chase Audige could very well be in that conversation come March. Using his athleticism and lateral quickness, Audige was a versatile piece for the ‘Cats last year. As Michael said, Chris Collins will likely toy with three-guard lineups early on. Consequently, the ‘Cats may heavily lean on Audige to shut down both guards and bigger wings, depending on each opponent’s primary offensive threat. He was a steady plus-defender in 2020-21, with occasional flashes of brilliance, and with a full year in Evanston behind him, look for Audige to build on that success. His chances are also bolstered with the departure of 2020-21 All-Defensive wings Darryl Morrell and Aaron Henry from the Big Ten.

Bradley Locker: Elyjah Williams serves as the team’s unsung hero

Entering Northwestern’s exhibition matchup against Lindenwood, most NU fans had their eyes directed towards Pete Nance, Ty Berry, Boo Buie and Chase Audige. While some of Chris Collins’ youngsters also made waves, Evanston native and graduate transfer Elyjah Williams truly stole the show by posting 11 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and three steals in 21 minutes. Granted, both Audige and Ryan Young didn’t participate in the preseason matchup, but the fact that Collins turned to Williams early and often indicates that he might be high up on the 9th-year head coach’s pecking order. While at Farleigh Dickinson, Williams continually improved every year, posting 13.9 points per game and a team-best 20.7 PER. The forward could easily help to spell the loss of Miller Kopp — don’t be surprised if he becomes a key part of Northwestern’s nucleus.