The start of 2023 began with two polar opposite results for the Wildcats, with a 73-57 loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes and a 73-60 victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini. Yet, despite the final scores differing greatly between these two, there were lots to take away from the ‘Cats’ start to the conference play. Here are the three things we learned from Northwestern’s opening week of the new year.
The ‘Cats have an identity, for better or worse.
It’s early January and the ‘Cats have been one of the best defensive teams in the country this season. Following their game against Illinois, Northwestern defense’s led the nation in two-point field goal percentage allowed and had the No. 6 ranked defense according to KenPom. Despite the loss to Ohio State, this defensive identity was on clear display in the past week for Collins’ crew.
I know what you are thinking, the Buckeyes scored 73 points and embarrassed Northwestern, and you’re trying to tell me this further proved Northwestern’s identity is defense? While I’m not going to claim that all of the Buckeyes’ shot attempts were heavily contested, Ohio State hit many tough shots against the ‘Cats and got to the line 20 times. More importantly though, in what has been a theme all year for Northwestern, the Buckeyes had significantly fewer shot attempts than they normally take. The ‘Cats have not only forced many misses from inside the arc this year, but they have helped slow the game down to limit possessions and transition opportunities.
Of course, this proved to be ineffective, as the Buckeyes had little difficult scoring in the half court against Northwestern. Yet, this same strategy is what allowed the ‘Cats to keep it close early against Illinois before eventually pulling away in the second half. With Northwestern’s lack of athleticism in comparison to most other Big Ten teams, the emphasis that Collins has put on transition defense and defensive rotations this year has allowed the ‘Cats to stay competitive even when the shots aren’t falling.
Northwestern’s overreliance on Buie and Audige isn’t sustainable
It was no secret coming into 2022-23 that the duo of Boo Buie and Chase Audige had a lot of shot attempts in front of them. With the departure of the ‘Cats’ leading scorer Pete Nance and Ryan Young, who added in nearly 10 PPG himself, it was clear the ‘Cats’ offense would only go as far as their senior backcourt pairing would take them. However, through conference play thus far, the offensive workload that has been put on the duo is unsustainable as the ‘Cats get deeper into the gauntlet of Big Ten play.
Audige and Buie have had a combined 85 field goal attempts through the team’s first three conference games. The entire rest of the team had 84. Coupled with the fact that nearly half of the duo’s attempts have been behind the arc, it is no wonder that they both experienced visible fatigue and cramping against the Illini. Despite getting the win against Illinois, when Buie began the game 0-of-10 from the field, no one outside of Audige helped carry the load in the first half, as Audige scored 13 and gave the ‘Cats the lead at the half. Although the duo was helped out a bit by Ty Berry and Brooks Barnhizer in the second half, Buie and Audige still ended as the teams leading scorers (thanks largely to Buie’s 11 made free throws), despite shooting a combined 26% from the floor.
When having to rely so heavily on just two players, it forces the duo to keep shooting even when their shots aren’t falling, which results in a team that ranks 188th offensively in KenPom. With the ‘Cats’ season nearly halfway through, the time is now for a consistent offensive option outside of Buie and Audige to emerge if the ‘Cats hope to compete against the upper echelon of Big Ten opponents
Brooks Barnhizer has arrived
Through the first ten games of the year, Brooks Barnhizer’s offensive production was a non-factor. However, the sophomore has taken the momentum from his 18-point breakout performance against the UIC flames into the new year, scoring six and eight points against Ohio State and Illinois, respectively. These numbers don’t jump off the box score, but the way he is scoring makes these numbers exponentially more noticeable. As discussed above, Northwestern’s offense relies is made up mostly on the shot attempts of two players, mainly because no other Wildcat has shown an ability to create their own shot. This is not the case for the 6-foot-6 Indiana native, who has used his size to create shot attempts for himself.
The lengthy guard has not only contributed in the scoring department, but he has averaged eight rebounds a game in the last two matches, and has shown flashes as a distributor. With Berry being moved back from sixth man to the start this season, it was unclear where the scoring would come from for the second-unit. Barnhizer has answered this question after being out of the rotation in his freshman year, and will only improve as he becomes more acclimated with the speed and physicality of Big Ten play.