Last Wednesday night, Northwestern beat Illinois by double-digits for the first time in almost 10 years. With Welsh-Ryan Arena’s student section packed to the brim and hundreds of others turned away half an hour before tipoff, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the buzz surrounding men’s basketball was the strongest it had been since 2017.
At the same time, given how the Wildcats have fared against Big Ten opponents in recent years, that new height had an ominous feeling of an early peak. Remember when NU knocked off No. 10 Michigan State at the Breslin Center last January? It proceeded to lose its next four in a row, and broke that losing streak by barely surviving a 24-point blown lead against Rutgers. All season, Northwestern earned its reputation as the team that just couldn’t manage to pull out close games.
So, even when the ‘Cats were up by 16 points on No. 15 Indiana with 12 minutes to play, a crash back to Earth still seemed to be the most likely outcome. It seemed inevitable when Julian Roper missed two free throws and Jalen Hood-Schifino immediately nailed a three-pointer with 30 seconds left.
But the ‘Cats managed to hold on, putting on their best offensive performance in conference play thus far. Just as the optimism appeared to have crested, it skyrocketed.
As NU did against the Illini, it got off to an early lead on Indiana. Unlike Wednesday’s win, the ‘Cats built that lead with white-hot shooting. As late as 12 minutes into the game, Northwestern was shooting over 65% from the field, and it made six of its 12 three-pointers in the first half. Perhaps more importantly, Chris Collins’s squad went into halftime with a grand total of one turnover.
As expected, those marks fell back down to Earth. That made what mostly stayed the same — Northwestern’s strong defense — all the more important. Even though the Hoosiers found good looks throughout the game and NU had no answer on the perimeter for Hood-Schifino, who ended up dropping 33 points, the ‘Cats continued to display their knack for forcing turnovers that set up easy points in transition.
Who else was there but Chase Audige to lead the way with a Burtonian six steals? Matt Schumacher and Stephen Bardo, who called the game for FS1, nicknamed him “Audige Island,” comparing his defensive playmaking to that of a shutdown cornerback. But he looked more like a roaming middle linebacker, flying all over the court to fluidly execute perimeter switches and deflect passes.
It was the same story on the other end. Even though Audige had a rough day shooting-wise, going just 5-for-14 from the field, he was an effective facilitator throughout, drawing enough defensive attention near the three-point line to open up opportunities like this one en route to an eight-assist day.
And when Audige missed time down the stretch due to what appeared to be a back injury, Boo Buie stepped up as Northwestern’s offensive centerpiece. After making just two of 13 shots against the Illini, he delivered with 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting on Sunday. Even when the ‘Cats had to claw for baskets during Indiana’s long runs in the second half, Buie managed to answer with a score almost every time the Hoosiers seemed to be mustering enough momentum to come back and win. It was only fitting that he drained the game-sealing free throw moments before Trey Galloway’s buzzer-beating three from beyond half-court.
It’s also fitting that Northwestern, a team that has heavily relied on its defense’s ability to force grind-it-out games to beat more talented opponents, revealed it could win in a new way by surviving an offensive slugfest. A team that has often struggled to get two players going on offense on a given day may have had three or four reliable options Sunday. Not only did the ‘Cats take down the Hoosiers, they dictated the game by opening up multiple double-digit leads.
Beating a ranked Indiana team at Assembly Hall (something Northwestern didn’t do once in the 24 other games since 1965 where it had the chance to) like this is about as forceful of a “We are for real” statement as one could have asked for. An NCAA Tournament appearance is no longer a far-off dream, but a tangible possibility.
NU went into the day as one of Joe Lunardi’s “next four out” teams. Now, with two Quadrant One wins on the road, a one-point loss against then-No. 13 Auburn and a NET ranking of 47th despite going through one of the weaker non-conference schedules in the country, the ‘Cats are now firmly in the bubble conversation. If they can continue to bring offensive firepower to the table and stay on the right side of .500 in Big Ten action, it may be a Big Dance snub — not a ticket — that will be out of the question on Selection Sunday.
Ultimately, though, Mar. 12 is a ways away, and there are still many questions surrounding the Wildcats. Frontcourt depth was Northwestern’s biggest weakness entering the season, and Luke Hunger’s season-ending foot surgery exacerbates that problem. It remains to be seen whether the ‘Cats can string together efficient shooting performances as a team. That starts with Wednesday’s home clash against Rutgers, which ranks third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.
But until Northwestern proves otherwise, let the good times roll.