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Three takeaways from Northwestern men’s basketball non-conference play

Northwestern heads into Big Ten play at 10-2, exceeding preseason expectations.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Northwestern men’s basketball had a very successful non-conference run to open up the season. Its blowout home loss to Pitt was perplexing, but going into conference play at 10-2 with a win at Michigan State exceeds preseason expectations. The Wildcats’ schedule will get significantly more difficult from here on out against real Big Ten competition starting with Ohio State on New Year’s Day, but here are three major takeaways from a strong November and December:

The senior class is really good

Don’t look now, but the ‘Cats have a bit of a big three forming this season. Seniors Chase Audige, Boo Buie and Robbie Beran have all had strong starts, and have all proven that they are capable of taking over games for Chris Collins and Northwestern.

Audige has been especially impressive and carved out a role for himself as this team’s number one option and best player. The Coram, N.Y. native leads Northwestern in points per game at 14.5 and shoots the ball at a solid 40.9 % clip. He also owns the highest three point percentage on the roster among players who actually shoot the three ball, at 37.9%.

In addition, he’s a prolific defender who averages 2.6 steals per game. Audige joined the 1,000-point club against Brown in Northwestern’s final non-conference game and appears to be primed for a huge senior season. If Audige continues to improve against Big Ten opponents, the ‘Cats have a real chance to be relevant in the conference.

Buie and Beran are both streaky scorers, but when they’re on, they’re on. Buie was expected to be this team’s best player heading into the season, and without the emergence of Audige he’d probably be viewed that way. Outside of a couple of games in which the fan-favorite guard’s shots didn’t drop, he’s quietly put together a solid season. Buie averages 14.1 points per game, shooting 36.6% from the field. He also leads the team in assists per game at 4.4.

Beran is the team’s third leading scorer and is easily the most physically gifted of the three seniors. At 6-foot-9, he gives the ‘Cats a forward who can also shoot the lights out. In the modern era of college basketball, that’s a crucial role. Beran is the team’s leading rebounder, and also shoots the three ball at a 34.8% clip with a 39.1% field goal percentage. Consistency has been an issue for Beran, but if he can develop that against conference opponents, he’ll be a headache for opposing defenses to plan for.

Northwestern is capable of beating good teams

Against Michigan State, Northwestern hung with the Spartans for the first half, and led for the entire second. This team is capable of playing complete games against traditional Big Ten powerhouses. The Wildcats are capable of beating anybody because they have some scorers, yes, but the biggest reason to be excited about Northwestern basketball this season is its defense. The ‘Cats currently rank second in the conference in points allowed per game at 55.5. Collins has his team playing really good team defense and its impact is obvious in every game the ‘Cats play. They haven’t really been outclassed on the defensive end of the floor so far this season (again, let’s ignore the Pitt game).

The Michigan State victory got a lot of attention, but Northwestern also lost by one to then-No. 13 Auburn earlier in the year in Cancun. The loss was the first sign that Northwestern isn’t just going to roll over against tough competition. The ‘Cats aren’t going to be dominant against Big Ten foes, but most games should at least be an entertaining watch, especially if you like defense.

The ‘Cats do the little things well

As a team, Northwestern shoots 75% from the free throw line. That’s good enough for fourth in the Big Ten. It’s just one of many areas where the ‘Cats are doing what’s necessary to win ball games.

On the glass, the ‘Cats are fourth in defensive rebounding and sixth in offensive boards. They settle at fifth in the conference in overall rebounds per game at 39.5. Northwestern also doesn’t turn the ball over much, and its stout defense forces turnovers of its own. The ‘Cats have the second-best turnover margin in the Big Ten at 4.27.

As a basketball program, it’s always going to be key for Northwestern to give itself every possible advantage in games, especially in conference play. So far, this roster has been doing exactly that, and it’s led to this 10-2 start.