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Evaluating men’s basketball seven games into the season

The Audige-less ‘Cats have fallen twice, yet they have the makings of a team that can be significantly better than they were a year ago.

NCAA Basketball: Legends Classic Semifinal-Providence at Northwestern Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern is 5-2 through their first seven games of the 2021-22 season, with their losses coming against Providence and Wake Forest by a combined nine points. Despite the fact that the ‘Cats were 6-1 through their first seven games last season, where they had wins at Indiana and against both Michigan State and Ohio State, Chris Collins’ team appears to be a better unit then they were in 2020, but are still far from the team they need to be to go dancing this March. Here are a few keys we’ve noticed throughout the Wildcats’ preseason play thus far.

Boo Buie and Pete Nance have stepped up big time

Beginning with the positives, Boo Buie and Pete Nance are top 10 scorers in the conference thus far, and are both are playing at an All-Big Ten Level. The upperclassmen have stepped up in a major way this year, which has been much needed with Chase Audige’s injury and the departure of Miller Kopp.

Starting with the floor general, Buie has been off to a good start this season, averaging 16.7 points and a conference-leading 6.3 assists per game. His numbers have drastically increased from previous seasons and his usage rate is the highest it’s been in his career, yet his assist to turnover ratio has only improved, with it being a fourth best in the conference at 2.8. He’s has his struggles, sure, but the increased production is certainly a welcome sight.

Moving onto senior forward Pete Nance, who is leading the team in points, rebounds and blocks, while scoring from all three-levels. His efficiency and passing ability is what has been his biggest step up from last season, with a 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio on 3.4 assists per game, whilst having career highs in field goal, three point and free throw percentage.

Considering Buie and Nance were the third and fourth options offensively last season, their aggressiveness has been huge for Northwestern, and both players should benefit from a Chase Audige return somewhat soon.

The Wildcats bench has proven their worth

Northwestern’s leader in steals from last year hasn’t touched the floor yet and their second leader in steals now plays in Bloomington, yet the Wildcats are averaging eight steals a game. That puts the ‘Cats at second in the conference in steals behind Iowa. A large reason for this has been the play of Detroit native Julian Roper II, who is ninth in the conference in steals despite coming off the bench and playing less than 20 minutes a game.

The main scorer off the bench for the Wildcats is Ryan Young, who is averaging just under 12 points per game on a team-high 70% from the field while shooting 10% better from the line than last season. His 26.6 points per 40 minutes have been invaluable to this team, especially when Buie and/or Nance aren’t on the floor.

Lastly, senior Ryan Greer and grad transfer Elyjah Williams off the bench have been more than serviceable thus far, combining for over 11 points and six boards per game. Greer has taken a big step up from being ninth in minutes last year, as he has been playing starter type minutes (24.1/game) despite coming off the bench. He is lighting it up from behind the arc once again, shooting a team high 46.7% from three, and still hasn’t missed a foul shot (although he’s only had seven attempts). The Fairleigh Dickinson transfer and Evanston native has fit right in the rotation, as Williams has shown great effort in his limited minutes by making plays that often don’t show up in the stat sheet.

Overall, the bench has been quite a positive surprise and has allowed Collins to give their starters much needed rest. It’ll be interesting to see how the rotation changes when Audige comes back, considering that second unit’s play will make it difficult for the coaching staff to completely take out any of these four.

The ‘Cats have made it a habit of starting slow

Moving onto the negatives, Northwestern has not started games well at all, which has largely contributed to them losing two out of the last three. It’s hard to tell why the Cats have looked lethargic to begin many games this season, but it is clear from looking at Northwestern that this team has definitely been a second half team thus far.

Through their first seven games, Northwestern has outscored their opponents by an average of only 5.1 points a game in the first half, compared to them outscoring their opponents by an average of 12.3 in the second. These early struggles are why Northwestern’s been down at the break three times this season, and also had the team up only one at half against High Point, who the ‘Cats outscored 61-27 in the second half.

Sluggish starts have already cost the ‘Cats twice this year, as they lost against Providence and Wake Forest in spite of the fact that they outscored them in the second half. With Northwestern’s first conference game being Sunday against Maryland, it goes without saying that the Wildcats will get run out of the gym against the more talented teams in the conference if they continue to start games like they often have this year.

Ty Berry’s inconsistency is slightly concerning

It’s safe to say this was not the start to his sophomore season that Jon Rothstein had in mind when he tweeted, “Ty Berry. Buy Stock Now.”

Now a starter, Berry has not been the consistent scorer that many thought he would be, as he has often disappeared offensively in games that he wasn’t involved in early on. Berry has scored in the double digits three times this season, and had zero points on two shot attempts in 21 minutes against Providence.

In games where he isn’t a factor offensively it is difficult for Collins to keep Berry on the floor, resulting in the freshman being on the court more than Berry against both Providence and Wake Forest. With how elite many defenses are around the Big Ten, Berry will need to produce more on the offensive end if he hopes to play extended minutes during conference play. He’s a flamethrower from deep, that’s not hyperbole, but his field goal percentage is down from last year.

Berry’s lack of aggression at times has been frustrating and a bit concerning, but with only eight games starting under his belt in his collegiate career, it is far from time to hit the panic button on the Kansas native.