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MAILBAG: Northwestern men’s basketball is... good?

An absolutely packed mailbag as we enter the holiday season.

Photo by SJ_Carrera_Inc.

In Inside NU’s last article before we take a few-day holiday break, I opened a bountiful Mailbag full of all the questions anyone could want answered before we switch over into the new year. Between basketball, lacrosse, softball, football, NIL, Evanston restaurants and... my classes(?), there’s so much to talk about, so let’s dive right in!

Hope on the Hardwood

“What are the odds of men’s or women’s basketball making the NCAA Tournament as of this moment?” — @Bradley_Locker

I’m currently trying to remain as realistic as possible and not get my hopes up, especially after the men’s basketball collapses of the last two years.

I think the easier answer is the women’s team, in which I’d lean towards “not very likely.” It currently has seemed like a rebuilding year for Joe McKeown’s 6-5 squad, as the team’s stars are all pretty young and have struggled with inconsistency. Northwestern lost big against its first three Power Five opponents of the year — Oregon, Notre Dame and Duke — before finally having a close game against No. 17 Michigan. The team has shown potential, but it’s not quite there yet.

The men’s team, on the other hand, appears like it could be possible if the stars align. Not only has Northwestern’s defense done a complete 180 from what we’ve seen in the last few years, it’s become one of the best in the conference (dare I jump the gun and say country). It’s way too early to realistically say whether this team is tourney bound or not, because we’ll have to see how the Wildcats’ small ball lineup matches up against Big Ten forwards like Zach Edey and Trayce Jackson-Davis. If Northwestern finishes as the seventh- or eighth-best team in the Big Ten, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll be dancing come March.

“Given what we’ve seen from MBB thus far, what would be your updated record/B1G finish prediction?” — @idowling11

Before the season, I went with 12-19 overall with 5-15 in the Big Ten. I’m trying to be cautious with my optimism, so I’ll give a slight adjustment to 16-15 and 8-12 in the conference. If the team’s shooters can all get hot at the right moment, I could definitely see some upsets. The ‘Cats’ defense will keep them in it, but the offense has to be more consistent if they want to come out on top of close games.

“Sheer defensive grit could save Collins’ job past this year, but how scared should we be about recruiting? The 4-stars of yesteryear have dried up, and now we’re looking at a future of cobbling together a team of unranked recruits. Do we imagine that turning around at any point?” — @ZeiglerJaguar

Let’s first acknowledge that it’s likely tournament or bust for Chris Collins. Even if the defense significantly improves and the squad finds its identity with its grit on defense, I don’t think Collins returns unless the Wildcats are playing meaningful games in mid-March.

Let’s assume Northwestern makes it, or at least gets close enough to making it to justify keeping him another year. The Wildcats currently have the worst recruiting class in the Big Ten for 2023, with point guards Jordan Clayton and Parker Strauss (both unranked) as the only athletes to sign letters of intent. Assuming the departures of the four seniors and Tydus Verhoeven, Northwestern’s roster would look like this:

Current 2023-24 Lineup

Position Starters Backups
Position Starters Backups
G Ty Berry (Sr) Jordan Clayton (Fy)
G Julian Roper II (Jr) Parker Strauss (Fy)
G Brooks Barnhizer (Jr) Blake Smith (So)
F Luke Hunger (So) Nick Martinelli (So)
F Matt Nicholson (Sr) Gus Hurlburt (So)

If that lineup looks like it’s capable of winning five games to you, you are not alone. Collins is far from done making recruiting moves, especially if he gets another year, and I imagine that a tournament berth would bring all kinds of recruits that want to play in Evanston (I say this fully aware that it would probably just be three stars, but look at the table above and tell me I’m not grasping at straws). Plus, I imagine there would be some graduate transfers looking to join a team fresh off a trip to the tourney and willing to beef up the roster.

If Northwestern disappoints once again, none of it will matter. Whoever the new coach is will bring in their own guys and we’ll probably see a few rebuilding years as they wait for the roster to get older and bring in their own classes. It may look bleak right now, but I expect the recruiting will work itself out, one way or the other.

“For all but the Pittsburgh, the ‘Cats MBB have been good to great on the defense. Was Pitt an aberration, or will other B1G teams be able to approximate what Pitt did and make January through early March a dismal 10 weeks?” — TomNU’83

In regards to Pitt, I do think the ‘Cats were quite worn down from the Auburn slugfest days earlier and there might’ve been some hangover from that. Nonetheless, it was a terrible defensive performance, and one that Big Ten teams will likely use in their film for studying NU.

Northwestern’s D has been good so far largely in part to the size and length of the team’s wings. By running small ball lineups, the ‘Cats are incredibly athletic and able to disrupt passing lanes and force frequent turnovers. With these smaller lineups of mostly guards, Northwestern has been very good at help defense in getting over to assist on-ball teammates, but these rotations could certainly be exploited with a team that can move the ball well and knock down threes. The Wildcats are currently the third-best team in the country in defensive two-point field goal percentage, but the threes are where opponents have been open often thus far. Then again, not every opponent is going to shoot 14-of-22 from deep like Pitt did.

Here come the Juggernauts

“NU Lax schedule just dropped, what’s your must-watch game?” — @BreaLassek

Oh man, that NU Lacrosse schedule is absolutely loaded. There’s so many games I’m looking forward to watching; there are six against teams that finished 2022 in the top 10 — including each of the other three Final Four teams — as well as rematches against Syracuse and Stony Brook and other ranked teams like Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins and Michigan.

Between North Carolina, Boston College and Maryland, I’d have to lean toward the Wildcats’ impending matchup against the defending national champs. After losing by double digits to the Tar Heels earlier last season and collapsing with a 14-7 lead in the NCAA Semifinals, you have to believe this game will be circled on the calendar for Kelly Amonte Hiller and Co. Especially with UNC losing Ally Mastroianni, Jamie Ortega and Taylor Moreno, along with the Wildcats returning Izzy Scane from injury, March 19th will be the perfect time for Northwestern to get its revenge.

“Can you give me a 500 word preview of this February’s Notre Dame vs Northwestern softball game? Also, if you could schedule a yearly non-conference game with one team in football, rotating between home venues, who would you choose?” — @JayJayPost

Speaking of teams with loaded schedules!

Fresh off a College World Series appearance and returning everyone but the program’s home run leader in Rachel Lewis, Northwestern looks primed for another phenomenal year. The only thing standing in the Wildcats’ way? Fifteen of their 26 non-conference opponents being NCAA Tournament teams last year. One of those happens to be the Fighting Irish, who I won’t write 500 words about, but I will say that they will be a tough task after returning their top four hitters. After the much anticipated matchup in the Evanston Regional fell through and Northwestern ended up playing McNeese State twice, I’m excited to finally see the two academic powerhouses match up.

Former EIC Dan Olinger was actually asked a very similar question about football non-con games a few Mailbags ago, and it’s hard to disagree with his Notre Dame and Duke picks. Notre Dame is definitely the one that comes to mind for me as well, although I have a feeling that would be quite lopsided, save for the occasional 2014-esque upset. For a while, Duke seemed like the perfect answer, and although the games have been close the last few years, the Blue Devils have always seemed to have the ‘Cats’ numbers.

Let’s throw Stanford in the ring. A top 10 academic school along with a once-strong football program that’s fallen off in recent years and had one conference win in 2022? Sounds like the perfect matchup for the Wildcats of Evanston.

And now... the mess that is football

“Settle a commentariat debate: is coaching or talent the root of football’s problems?”

— Sloth Astronaut


In a way, this seems like a chicken-or-the-egg problem. I do think that Northwestern does struggle from not having as much talent in positions of need. For example, I’m not sure a Bryce Kirtz/Jacob Gill wide receiver tandem is really up to the level of a Big Ten starting duo based off of what we’ve seen so far, and it pains me every time I have to watch one of the linebackers attempt to chase after a wideout they were supposed to cover. It’s very fair to say that there are holes in the roster where there’s simply not enough talent to be competitive at this moment.


I do think that a lot of what we see from athletes on the field is a result of the coaching. I think back to Brandon Joseph, for example, who was a quite talented safety and now has his name on the stadium. There were rumblings after he announced his transfer to Notre Dame (although I’m not sure of the validity of them) that Joseph was unhappy with how he was being used in Jim O’Neil’s scheme, which led to his departure. There are absolutely things the coaches cannot do, like finish tackles or catch passes that hit you in the hands. But it is the job of the coaches to figure out how to best utilize talent and to get those players in the positions to succeed, and I largely don’t think Northwestern’s coaches have done that.

While it makes sense as a coach to want to stick to your scheme, you have to recognize where you have talent and utilize that to your benefit. I can think of no greater example than the offensive play-calling. Running backs were an obvious strength of the 2022 team, but constant Wildcat runs and rushes up the middle did nothing to put the team in the position to succeed. Evan Hull was fantastic every time he touched the ball on a screen, but as the season went on, there were fewer and fewer attempts to try and get him the ball through the air. The designs weren’t smart — why was a 5-foot-9 wide receiver trying to hold a block on the edge (no disrespect to the great Malik Washington) when the play easily could’ve been called for a bigger blocker like 6-foot-4 GHP?

There is blame to be placed on both sides. The players have to perform better, but the coaches also have to do a better job of utilizing their athletes’ strengths and being flexible with changes when things aren’t going right.

“Explain and Interpret: The athletic department and head football coach have yet to announce a new defensive coordinator. To what extent is this a reflection of the failure to part ways with the previous defensive coordinator earlier in the season?” — laxpuck

I’ll be honest, none of us here at Inside NU have any idea why it’s taking so long to hire a new defensive coordinator.

My first thought might be that Fitz is waiting for bowl season to end so he can pluck a coach from a successful team (as I try not to think about Jim Leonhard), but the other, darker idea is that Fitz didn’t want to fire Jim O’Neil at all, and the decision came from Dr. Gragg and/or Pat Ryan. That would imply that he was not thinking about replacement DCs at all, and may be the worst scenario in terms of Fitz being able to recognize his mistakes.

“How hard should the AD go after Saban to come to Evanston? Recruiting would be much easier at Northwestern than Alabama (academics, Chicago, facilities, etc.)”

— @SaskatoonMitch

I am more likely to wake up in the Bahamas tomorrow with a million dollars in my pocket next to Livvy Dunne than Nick Saban is to come to Northwestern.

“How many things on Northwestern’s campus (Evanston and Chicago) are named after Pat Ryan or members of the Ryan family? If you had enough money that you could name a decent chunk of a university after yourself, what would you spend that money on instead?” — TDozer

Off the top of my head, there’s Ryan Field, Welsh-Ryan Arena, Ryan Fieldhouse, Ryan Hall behind Tech and the RCMA (Ryan Center for the Musical Arts) that I believe is also the main Bienen building. That’s just in Evanston; I have no clue what he has in Chicago, but I know he’s contributed to Feinberg, so I’m sure there’s something down in the city as well.

I think if I had that kind of money and could comfortably get my whole family through college, I feel like a lot of it would probably go toward scholarships for lower-income and underprivileged students and those in need to attend college, and maybe some donations toward medical research. Another good answer is to put that money into actually building free or significantly cheaper living spaces for the homeless. I remember seeing a European country did that a while back, creating a small village of townhomes for homeless people until they could get their own place and it apparently worked really well.

If we’re sticking to the sports side of things, I would love to own an NFL team. Goodbye, Dan Snyder!

Miscellaneous and closing thoughts

“Rank the following Evanston eateries: Bat 17, Edzo’s, Buffalo Joe’s, Chicken Shack, Bob’s.” — @BenChasenINU

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never had Edzo’s or Buffalo Joe’s, as well as a plethora of other “classic” Evanston restaurants (is not eating at Tomate really that big a deal?). Covid really messed up my first year with most restaurants not really being open for sit-down, and last year I lived in the North dorms far away from downtown, so this year is really my first time getting to experience Evanston food. I’d have to go Bat 17 first, Chicken Shack second (being open late is huge) and Bob’s third, although I think I’ve only had Bob’s once. Still left on my list is Taco Diablo and Tapas Barcelona, although I’d gladly welcome other recommendations!

“Since following NU sports, what is the greatest moment or game that you’ve ever seen and why?” — @zainbando99

It’s got to be the Tempe Super Regional last year. Between Hannah Cady’s clutch seventh-inning solo shot to send it to extra innings in game one or her tying homer two games later that helped NU rally from a 5-0 deficit and advance to the WCWS, that was definitely my favorite moment I’ve watched as a Wildcat fan. If we’re talking in person, it’s Lacrosse’s three goals in two and a half minutes to come back against Syracuse in a rematch of 2021’s Final Four, with Lauren Gilbert earning the game-winner in OT.

“What were your go-to Area I (science) and Area VI (fine arts) distros or, really, any of the Weinberg core classes you didn’t want to take, and what are the current “must-takes”?

— MNWildcat

I’m actually a psychology minor, so I’ve loved taking all the social/personality psych classes I can. That distro itself has a lot of the “must-takes” for those that aren’t majoring or minoring in it, and my favorite class I’ve taken by far is Relationship Science with Eli Finkel (which seems a lot like the Human Sexuality class mentioned in the thread). Another I’ve heard is really great is Marriage 101 with Renee Engeln, but either you have the first registration time or you’re not getting into the class.

My Area I’s were Astronomy with Smutko (like yourself), CS 110 and Diversity of Life, which was just your basic animal biology class. I still need one Area IV left, but I took a Gender Studies class last winter about women filmmakers that fulfilled one spot and I greatly enjoyed that.

Also making the list: I took a class on the Italian Renaissance this past quarter thinking I had signed up for a class on the Harlem Renaissance, and also dropped-while-failing out of an impossibly hard Russian Literature class (never reading Dostoevsky again) my first quarter at NU.

“If you could donate and get your name on anything NU-related (e.g. the Dan and Susan Jones Family Football Coach), what would it be and how much do you think it would cost?” — Sloth Astronaut

Has anyone sponsored the ducks in the lakefill pond yet? Not the geese because those are mean, but the “Dorsey Ducks” doesn’t sound too bad. I have no concept of money once it gets above the cost of my rent, so maybe around two million for the ducks?

“What is the coolest NIL collective name/what should NU’s NIL collective be called?” — NU’06er

In no particular order, here are a few of my faves:

  • Team Boneyard (East Carolina)
  • Knights of the Raritan (Rutgers)
  • Who Rocks the House (Utah)
  • Roll the Quad/Top Hat Collective (Wake Forest)

Kansas State already has “Wildcat NIL” and “The Wildcats’ Den” on lockdown, and with the name currently “TrueNU,” here are a few better suggestions (some provided by comment suggestions):

  • AristoCats (Sloth Astronaut)
  • Purple Reign (NU’06er)
  • Cardiac Cash (GTom)
  • Pat’s Pockets
  • Northshore Never Again 2019s
  • ‘Cat Collective