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Three takeaways from the 2020-21 Northwestern men’s basketball season

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A lot of unfortunate familiarity.

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

Northwestern men’s basketball finished with a losing record and an abrupt exit from the Big Ten Tournament for the fourth straight season. While the Wildcats surprised America with a 3-0 conference start and ranking as high as 19th in the nation in December, the highs turned into lows quickly. That 3-0 start led to a 13-game losing streak and another season to forget. Here are three takeaways from another “rebuilding” year.

The offense needs to progress

Much of the reason behind Northwestern’s struggles in recent years is due to the lack of offensive firepower. In Chris Collins’ tenure, the ‘Cats have never had a top-10 offense in the conference. This prolonged drought has one solution: a change of scheme.

Northwestern is built as a team that should be playing fast and shooting a lot of threes. While the latter may be true (Northwestern ranked fifth in the Big Ten in three-point attempts per game), the team often does not play to the talent on the floor.

Too often Northwestern finds itself in half-court situations of which it doesn’t take advantage. The ‘Cats were the worst rebounding team in the conference and for much of the season had poor defense to compliment, yet they played at a pace that would say otherwise.

With a speedy point guard in Boo Buie and a number of shooters around him, Northwestern should be playing a style that emulates the small-ball Houston Rockets. NU simply does not have the talent of other programs in the conference, so the best way to combat this reality is to play to players’ strengths and at an overwhelming pace.

Some progress made

Despite an offense and defense that each ranked 11th in the Big Ten, 2020-21 was a relative step in the right direction for the ‘Cats. They doubled their conference win total and earned some impressive wins. Upsets against Michigan State and Ohio State were anchored by strong performances from Buie. The sophomore had clutch moments in both contests, including the game-winning three against the now-top-ten Buckeyes.

Even in their 13-game skid, the Wildcats kept it close against elite teams like Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State. They were a break or two away from wins against Indiana, Penn State and Purdue. Win those and they’re near .500 in conference play.

Northwestern showed the potential for the future with a young but growing up group. There was a level of confidence during their Big Ten regular season bookend three-game win streaks. Improvement should be in the cards next season.

Enough progress?

As detailed, this season was better than last season, but expectations were low. Based upon the difference in talent versus results, it is finally time to move on from the man who first took the Wildcats dancing.

In Chris Collins’ eight-year tenure, Northwestern has had just two winning seasons. While those two seasons make him the most successful coach in program history, his supervision over the team since 2017 is reason for dismissal.

Over the past two seasons, NU has a conference record of 9-30. Even with a young squad and a conference full of powerhouse programs, the results have been lackluster.

Eight of Northwestern’s 15 losses were by 10 points or fewer, including a late seven-point blown lead in the Big Ten Tournament. Despite Collins saying his team got better at closing this year, they still have trouble sealing the deal.

While Buie has the tools to emerge as the closer (though he’s very inconsistent) and Chase Audige flashed similar ability, the Wildcats haven’t been able to show a reliable ability to take over a game late. Without an effective late-game strategy and a reliable scoring option, team success is finite.