After starting Big Ten play 3-0 for the first time since 1968, Northwestern men’s basketball (6-9, 3-8 B1G) season has lost eight consecutive games for the first time since…last season. While expectations were low entering this season, the trajectory of the schedulee sadly encapsulates the experience of many Wildcat fans.
While there have been many negatives so far this season, there have been positive developments as well. Behold, our midseason stock report for Northwestern men’s basketball.
Inconsistency has hampered Nance after a hot start to the season, yet 2020-21 has still been a success for him. He is averaging 11.5 PPG (a three-point-per-game increase from last season), shooting 51.1% from the field (an increase of 11 percentage points) from last season and a 5.7 defensive rating (an improvement from his 5.1 mark last year).
Nance has been a big factor in games in which Northwestern has been competitive, scoring in double figures in seven Big Ten games, including a season-high 21 at Iowa. Nance still is far from a bona fide star, but in a season focused on development, his offensive progress is reason for excitement when looking ahead to 2021.
According to KenPom.com, Nance posted an offensive rating at or above 98 in five consecutive games this season from the stretch of opponents starting with Quincy and ending at Iowa, a feat he never before achieved. Interestingly, his possession usage sat above 22% in three of these five games (MSU, IU, Iowa). When Northwestern uses Nance more, his offensive rating tends to be higher. The game after Iowa, at Michigan, Nance was used on 19% of possessions and produced an offensive rating of 94. For a more recent example, Nance’s usage rate was 17% when he scored a 74 offensive rating. The game before, against Penn State, Nance was used on 33% of possessions and had an offensive rating of 115. Get him the ball.
It may not seem like it, but this is Chris Collins’ best three-point shooting team since 2015. Northwestern is shooting 35% from deep, ranking a modest 100th nationally, yet still a vast improvement from shooting 31.2% and ranking 279th nationally last season. The long ball has gone from putrid to mediocre.
Part of that can be attributed to Boo Buie’s improved shooting. He is hitting threes at a clip of 38% this year compared to last year’s 28%. Additionally, while he may not be very efficient, Chase Audige is shooting nearly 30% from deep, which is an improvement from Pat Spencer’s 23.5% mark in 2020. Miller Kopp continues to be one of the conference’s best pure shooters, with a 41.5% mark from beyond the arc.
If Ty Berry can earn more playing time, his shooting ability could help elevate Northwestern into a solid three-point shooting team.
The Wildcats finished last season ranked 18th nationally in turnover percentage. This season, NU finds itself 22nd nationally with a 15.6% turnover rate. While one may argue this stat is more indicative of offensive stagnancy and a failure to be aggressive, it is still Northwestern’s best offensive team stat. Additionally, the ‘Cats are 31st in the nation with opponents stealing the ball on only 7.2% of their possessions. Just think about how inefficient NU’s offense would be if it turned the ball over constantly!
Honorable Mentions: Three Big Ten wins, Ryan Young being 100% from 3 on the season, Boo Buie’s assist rate, Ryan Greer, being a finalist for Patrick Baldwin Jr (we think?)
No one enjoys having to knock Collins. But just as we praised him when the ‘Cats began Big Ten play 3-0, he must yield criticism now that NU has lost eight straight.
The program still has pieces to give hope to its long-term trajectory. Boo Buie should be a solid Big Ten point guard next year. Miller Kopp still shoots efficiently from the field. Pete Nance has emerged as a building block for another year.
But Collins’ inability to pull his team out of losing streaks is still a major red flag. This eight-game losing streak is only his fourth-longest losing skid at NU. A head coach at a Big Ten program has to be able to keep his team emotionally invested when the team faces adversity. Collins has repeatedly highlighted the team’s tough strength of schedule, but recent losses to Rutgers and Penn State raise further concerns about the Wildcats’ unity and morale.
Boo Buie’s inconsistent shooting
As previously alluded to, Buie still has the looks of a solid Big Ten point guard. Yet his inconsistent shooting is still a major reason for concern. In the first eight games of the season, Buie’s lowest offensive rating was 92 against Pittsburgh. Besides Pitt, his next-lowest offensive rating was 122 in the other seven games (against Ohio State and Indiana). Since then, though, he’s topped an offensive rating of 100 just once, against Penn State.
Buie had similar struggles last season. His offense rating never reached 100 in the season’s final nine games while he reached that mark four times in the previous seven games. Buie is an electric offensive talent, but until he reaches that next level as an all-around player, he needs to become a more consistent scorer.
When Chris Collins took NU to the Dance in 2017, the Wildcats’ defense was rock solid. Sanjay Lumpkin, Dererk Pardon and Vic Law were all defensive stoppers who helped create an identity on that side of the floor.
This year’s Wildcats possess nowhere near the same defensive capabilities. Anthony Gaines, Northwestern’s best defender, cannot be a solid contributor in the rotation because his defensive ability is negated by his lack of offense. Beyond Gaines, Ryan Young has proven to be a solid defender in the paint, but Collins refuses to start him in order to pair Nance and Beran together.
NU’s lack of regular contributors who can defend at a high level helps contribute to the ‘Cats ranking 214th in effective defensive field goal percentage and 296th in defensive turnover percentage.
Honorable Mentions: Projections for the rest of the season, three-point defense, general identity (or lack thereof)