Evanston’s weather forecast has been cloudy at best recently, and so is that of its men’s basketball team.
Northwestern basketball is still reeling from Ryan Young’s impending transfer to Duke and Pete Nance’s departure for the transfer market or the draft. With Elyjah Williams and Ryan Greer also set to graduate, there are holes for Chris Collins to fill all over the roster.
It’s unlikely that anyone will individually match Nance’s offensive output. But adding capable contributors could give the Wildcats the offensive stability they often lacked when the star forward was off the floor.
NU has begun to address its needs, particularly in the front court. The program’s three additions — UTEP transfer Tydus Verhoeven as well as incoming recruits Luke Hunger and Nick Martinelli — are all forwards who are versatile enough to guard most centers. But that doesn’t mean the Wildcats don’t need a proven center of its own. Without one, Collins won’t be able to deploy small lineups — he’ll rely on them instead.
So what can the ‘Cats do to fix this? Well, if the first step wasn’t obvious enough:
A proven big
The basketball equivalent of “you need to run to set up the pass” has to be “you can’t play small ball without big lineups.” It’s just not true, as long as you have a roster filled with talented shooters or quick-twitch wings who can switch onto anyone. The problem is, Northwestern has neither of those things.
Chase Audige and Casey Simmons are the only returning Wildcat perimeter players who can potentially provide defensive versatility. Simmons struggled in that area, leaving Audige as the lone “stopper” on the wing. Both players are offensively inefficient, so playing them together for long stretches doesn’t seem feasible.
That doesn’t mean Collins can’t ever play smaller lineups. They can work defensively — just look back at NU’s home loss against Illinois when Williams limited Kofi Cockburn’s paint efficiency. But for the ‘Cats, who can’t throw 6’9” defender after 6’9” defender at star players like they’re the Boston Celtics, having a strong rebounding center available keeps opponents on their toes on both ends.
Young was that guy last year, and he’s gone. Because Young, Williams and Robbie Beran constantly rotated minutes at the five, Collins could shift the game’s pace with different lineups. Hunger looks to take on that role, but Northwestern needs someone who can compliment him when he gets in foul trouble. Rising junior center Matt Nicholson is currently the only rostered center, but we haven’t quite seen him play enough to say he could be a gamechanger at all. Another transfer could provide some more depth there.
A defensive-minded backup guard
The interchangeable defense Northwestern dreams of starts at guard. And while Ryan Greer came off the bench, he was a huge catalyst behind the team’s sparkling +3.74 turnover margin, the second-best mark in the Big Ten. When Julian Roper II, a great defender himself, was off the floor, Greer brought the intensity NU needed to hound perimeter scorers all game.
Without Greer in the fold, another guard has to take on that bench role behind Roper. And from what it looks like right now, that could be a huge issue for the Wildcats. Ty Berry and Brooks Barnhizer seem primed to take on most of the minutes behind Roper and Boo Buie. Neither of them are proven defenders, though Barnhizer could bring a ton to the table after receiving limited playing time last season.
Even if Barnhizer does show flashes, an experienced guard to lead the second unit would be crucial for Northwestern. Greer’s scrappiness kept the ‘Cats in ample games that shouldn’t have been close last year. If NU wants to make its tournament dreams reality in 2023, it has to avoid committing series of mistakes that build up to fatal runs when its starters are resting.
Collins’s squad did a decent job of that last year. It was why Northwestern had so many opportunities to pull off upsets over conference rivals. Without a ton of offensive firepower, the Wildcats will have to do it again.