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Men’s basketball post-mortem, December: False hope

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Expected to struggle from the season’s star, December was a pleasantly surprising month for the Northwestern men’s basketball team.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

There was a time, there was a place, when tweets such as “Rank the ‘Cats!” and “Boo Buie should be first team All-Big Ten” were sent unirnically. Entering in a season in which expectations had been raised but were still below sea level, the Northwestern men’s basketball surprised many during their opening month of play in December.

The ‘Cats had no problems out of the gates, winning their first two games against Arkansas Pine-Bluff and Chicago State 92-49 and 111-66, respectively. After the catastrophe that was the season-opening loss to Merrimack in 2019, the back-to-back beatdowns were a welcome sight to see. Although it should be noted that Northwestern spared no expense in scheduling record-padding opponents, as AUPB and Chicago St. finished 353rd and 356th out of 357 Division-I men’s basketball teams in KenPom’s statistical team rankings.

On December 9, the Pittsburgh Panthers came to Evanston in what would be an absolutely bizarre game of basketball. Neither team could hit a shot in the early portions of the game, particularly the visiting Panthers, who started the game 3-for-25 from the field in the first 12 minutes of action, giving Northwestern a 30-16 late in the first half.

But in a tale as old as time, Chris Collins’ team saw its lead progressively evaporate over the course of the second half and ultimately crumbled for a heartbreaking loss in the final moments. Holding a 66-58 lead with under four minutes left in the game, Northwestern committed all of the cardinal sins needed to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory, particularly Buie who turned the ball over in the backcourt before missing not one, but two free throws to give Pittsburgh a chance to win the game on the final possession.

Trailing 70-69, Xavier Johnson knifed into the lane, causing Robbie Beran to mistakenly step forward off his man — Justin Champagnie — who punctuated his 20-point, 20-rebound performance and the Pittsburgh comeback win with a dunk, prompting the infamous replies-turned-off tweet from the team’s official account.

Fortunately for the team’s bottom line, another scheduled-win was on deck against D-II Quincy, who the Wildcats quietly stomped 100-48 to enter conference play with a record of 3-1. And that’s when the madness truly began.

Northwestern hosted the then No. 4 Michigan State Spartans on Sunday, December 20, in what many expected to be a beatdown of epic proportions. That turned out to be true, only the scripts were flipped between the two teams on the hardwood.

It was nearly a wire-to-wire win for the ‘Cats, as they only trailed for the first 3:30 of game before taking the lead, which would only expand throughout the game. The legend of “Michigan State Buie” was well in effect that day, as the sophomore guard drilled five of his six three point attempts, be it from any distance and over the contest of any defender. Pete Nance also showed out with 15 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, as the forward flashed some impressive passing chops that NU used to pick apart the MSU defense time and time again.

Riding high after shockingly great start to their Big Ten conference schedule, the team traveled to Bloomington for their first road game of the season against Indiana. Northwestern came out rolling behind the hot shooting of Buie and Miller Kopp to build a 33-18 lead in the first half. Predictably, that lead did not hold as the Hoosiers slowly clawed into the affair headed by star center Trayce Jackson-Davis, who finished the night with a game-high 22 points.

The William & Mary transfer Chase Audige had shown spurts promise through the first five games of the season, but was struggling to be both efficient and consistent, and through 35 minutes in Assembly Hall he had been held scoreless. That’s when the “Audige Explosion” (as Collins dubbed it post-game) took center stage.

Audige nailed tough bucket after bucket, making six straight shots and four free throws in the final five minutes of the game to finish with a team-high 17 points. The 6-foot-4 wing burned IU with his short space burst and high release point, allowing him to get his pull-up jumper off cleanly whenever he wanted (this ability of his would prove to be a double-edged sword throughout the season).

Northwestern returned home to play No. 23 Ohio State, hoping that a third straight upset victory could vault them into the AP Top 25 poll. The game was tightly contested throughout, thought the Buckeyes held the lead for the majority of the action behind balanced scoring from their frontcourt of EJ Liddell, Kyle Young and Justise Sueing. However, a season-best 23 point performance from Kopp helped keep the ‘Cats within striking distance, and down 64-57 with five minutes to go, they made their push.

Consecutive dunks from Ryan Young and Audige made it a three-point game, and a four-point burst by Kopp gave NU a 65-64 lead. Ohio State fought back to take the lead before a catch and shoot triple from Audige and a deep range dagger from Buie gave NU just enough breathing room to hold on and win 71-70 in what was undoubtedly the team’s best win on the season.

Northwestern finished the 2020 calendar year with a No. 19 beside their name and a trip to Iowa City to take on All-American (and eventual 2021 Wooden Award winner) Luka Garza and the Hawkeyes. The ‘Cats actually managed to keep the intimidating Garza in check, as he only mustered 18 points on the night against the NU defense and their unique brand of double teams. Unfortunately, focusing all that attention inside opened up opportunities for Iowa’s plethora of shooters, particularly Jordan Bohannon and CJ Fredrick who combined for nine threes in the 87-72 Wildcat loss.

It was a disappointing way to end the 3-0 start to conference play, but far from a somber one, as Northwestern played fine enough but was simply beat by a superiorly talented team. Surely the team continue on an upward trajectory in January, right?