With their season now over, it’s now time for us to look back at the Northwestern Wildcats’ 2021-22 men’s basketball campaign as a whole to identify the ups and downs that ultimately left them out of the NCAA Tournament for a fifth consecutive year. Here is our post-mortem for the season that just passed:
With Pat Fitzgerald’s team coming off their third straight loss of what would become a six-game losing streak to conclude the season, the basketball season’s beginning was seen as an escape from the pain of the football program for NU fans. For nearly the first two weeks of the year, Chris Collins’ squad served that purpose perfectly, feasting on a steady diet of subpar competition to win their first four games by an average of over 30 despite the absence of shooting guard Chase Audige.
The ‘Cats suffered their first loss their fifth game, falling to then-undefeated and eventual Big East regular season champion and NCAA Tournament 4-seed Providence. Despite the fact that the Friars led by 18 at one point in the second half, NU battled back at the ending and wound up losing by only five points. The next day, the Wildcats bounced back byy beating up Georgia, the bottom-feeders of the SEC, by 16. Leading Northwestern to victory, Boo Buie recorded 22 points and six assists on the Bulldogs. The ‘Cats closed out the opening month of the season with a tough loss in overtime at Wake Forest despite the fact that they led late in regulation, setting what would eventually become a trend in Big Ten play.
Altered by two COVID-induved cancellations in an already light monthly slate to close out 2021, NU’s month of December was as successful as it could have hoped for. The Wildcats only game of real significance was at Maryland, where, bolstered by the return of Chase Audige they picked up the road win against the Preseason AP Top 25 Terrapins. The ‘Cats entered the new year at 8-2, with all their goals in front of them and a fully healthy roster.
With the bulk of Big Ten play officially beginning, a nine game slate with a ridiculous six ranked opponents sat on Northwestern’s schedule in the opening month of the new year. If the ‘Cats had won a mere four games in this grueling stretch, the Big Dance would have been a real possibility.
The problem, of course, is that they didn’t come close to that number. They snatched their lone victory of the month on the road at then-No. 10 Michigan State of all places without the help of star forward Pete Nance. Otherwise, January ended up being an embodiment of the ‘Cats season as a whole, as they did their best Nebraska Football impression by losing nearly all of their games in close fashion. The ‘Cats lead in the latter half of six of these nine contests and lost only once by more than eight during the month. Northwestern entered the month six games above .500 and exited below it, a statistic that would be disappointing for an MLB team, let alone a Power 5 college basketball program.
The ‘Cats seemed to turn the page on the calendar by putting their dreadful month of January behind them, as they rattled off three straight wins to start of February. On paper, their win streak was only a positive and on their record, of course, does not have an asterisk, but the validity of these wins was quite low. The first came via a overtime 79-78 win against a Rutgers team that had not yet hit its stride, and at the time, the game, during which the ‘Cats led by as much as 24 before allowing the Scarlet Knights to force overtime, didn’t boost morale at all. The second came in dominant fashion against a Nebraska Cornhuskers team that hadn’t yet won a conference game, and the last came versus an Indiana team that found itself greatly depleted due to disciplinary reasons and injuries.
The ‘Cats came back to earth following this by losing twice in four days, first to Illinois and then to Purdue. Northwestern concluded the month by winning only one of its last five, notching another victory and the regular season sweep of Nebraska while getting blown out on the road against Minnesota and Iowa and falling at Penn State despite leading at half.
By the time college basketball's greatest month rolled around, Northwestern was strictly playing for pride and revenge, as their NCAA Tournament chances sat near zero percent. Still, the Wildcats managed to provide a positive memory in their last regular season contest when Minnesota entered Welsh-Ryan Arena on Senior Night. Pete Nance capped off his career at home by reaching 1,000 points and finishing the regular season on a high note with a controlling 75-62 win over the Golden Gophers.
Postseason play for the ‘Cats started yet again on the first night of the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, with NU faced with its final of three matchups against Nebraska to keep its season alive. After falling behind by 15 in the second half to a team they dominated twice in the regular season, they showed some grit, getting back in the game with a momentous run and eventually pulling off the comeback win. The high the ‘Cats were on lasted less than 24 hours, as their game the following day against Iowa was an absolute bloodbath. The Hawkeyes scored a Big Ten Tournament-record 112 points to end NU’s season with a 36-point defeat.
With the loss to Iowa bringing Northwestern’s season and Collins’ ninth year as head coach to an end, his fifth straight losing season will be be remembered for its late-game losses and squandered opportunities. However, the head coach believes progress is being made and the program as a whole is heading in the right direction. “Two years ago we won three conference games,” Collins said after the final Iowa blowout. “Last year we won six. This year we won seven and a tournament game. So there are steps being made.”
The team’s record has indeed improved slowly in recent years. However, the fact that the ‘Cats finished 12th in the conference boasting a lineup filled with upperclassmen and led by a likely-departing Nance is quite concerning. As was announced by Director of Athletics and Recreation Dr. Derrick Gragg on Monday, Collins will keep his job for another year, but without a substantial jump in the 2022-23 season, it seems likely that Northwestern will finally look elsewhere.
On the bright side, the majority of the team’s lineup could return, as Nance, Ryan Greer and Elyjah Williams are the only seniors on this year’s team. Ryan Young will likely take Nance’s spot at center, meaning the ‘Cats could trot out four seniors in their starting five in the season to come. With the transfer portal gaining prevalence, there’s no guarantee that NU will keep all of its most key contributors, but there does seem to be some hope for the future.
Take this with a grain of salt, though. “It’s the hope that kills you” is a mantra that Northwestern fans related to all too much this season, so expectations should remain low for the ‘Cats next year, as they’ll attempt to improve on a subpar 2021-22.