As the calendar gets ready to flip from 2022 to 2023, it’s anyone’s guess what kind of team Northwestern will field in the latter half of its season.
Over recent years, the results have varied. In 2020, the Wildcats reached their highest ranking since November 2017 at No. 19 after defeating No. 4 Michigan State, Indiana and No. 23 Ohio State in consecutive bouts. Then, of course, came the program-long 13-game losing streak that ended any and all hopes of a trip to the tourney. The 2021-22 team seemed slightly less hopeful but still started 8-2 with a win over Maryland and close losses to Providence and Wake Forest. However, a series of almost laughable losses and late-game collapses doomed the ‘Cats to another sub-.500 record.
Any Big Ten basketball fan knows not to get their hopes up in December. The conference is one of the nation’s best from November through February, and the gauntlet of a schedule that usually features at least seven tournament teams is enough that nobody can squeak in due to an easy schedule.
However, and it may be foolish to think so, there is a feeling around the Northwestern fanbase and those who cover the team that this year may be different from years past. It’s not because we’re being irrational or mindless fans who think their team is going to the postseason every year, but it’s the fact that this year’s Wildcats have an identity that they haven’t in years past.
Per Kenpom, Northwestern has the No. 9 adjusted defense in the country, ranked second in the Big Ten. It’s already surpassed the total for opponents held under 60 points from the past three seasons entirely, and is third in the nation in opponent field goal percentage.
Northwestern plays a small-ball lineup with athletic wings that can guard most sizes of opponents, and this versatility has allowed players to force double teams and effective switches that create turnovers more frequently. Whether it’s the smaller roster makeup (now minus 6-foot-11 Pete Nance and 6-foot-10 Ryan Young) that has enabled this change or the arrivals of Chris Lowery and Bryant McIntosh on the sideline, Northwestern has found its identity with a quick, shifty defense that will make you bleed the shot clock, and is winning games because of it.
With that being said, no one knows what kind of team Northwestern will show on the court come January. The defense worked against smaller schools and weaker opponents, but will the Wildcats be able to adjust when their opponents have better three-point shooters and can execute quick skip passes that evade double teams? Will Northwestern, which currently has the No. 172 adjusted offense per Kenpom, be able to knock down its shots and keep up with high-scoring opponents? And who on Earth will be able to guard 7-foot-4 Purdue giant Zach Edey?
Those are among the many questions that the Wildcats will answer in the coming weeks. As Thursday’s close victory against Brown showed, there is still a lot of work to be done if Northwestern wants to return to meaningful March play. Nonetheless, as of right now in the stand-still between nonconference play and the gauntlet, there is hope.
By the end of the calendar year, Northwestern teams of recent have usually fostered a sense of optimism that wasn’t matched in the latter parts of the season. But when the new year begins, it’ll usher in a slate of games that will prove at last what kind of team Northwestern is, and whether Chris Collins can save his job with a trip to the postseason.