Last night was a tale of two halves for the Wildcats. Coming off a loss to Mississippi State, Northwestern sought to get itself right before No. 1 Purdue comes to Evanston on Friday. In the first half, it did not look as though the team would get itself right. A 42-41 halftime deficit provided tons of questions, but most of them were answered as Northwestern ran away with it in the second frame. Here are a few key takeaways from the 89-67 win:
Boo Buie is one of the best offensive players in the Big Ten
Buie had an absolutely stellar night, finishing with 23 points and seven assists, both of which led the team. It was a tale of two halves for the team, and that was the case for Buie as well. In the first half, the point guard was comfortable sitting back and distributing, tallying six assists and just five field goal attempts.
The spin. The dish. The jam.— Northwestern Basketball (@NUMensBball) November 28, 2023
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A major beneficiary of Buie’s first-half generosity was Matt Nicholson. The big man erupted for his best performance of the season, scoring nine points in the first half and 15 in the game. The Buie-Nicholson connection also resulted in a few nice alley-oops throughout the first half, and the team was +11 in the first 20 minutes with Buie on the floor.
Of course, that meant in the five first-half minutes Buie sat, Northwestern was a putrid -12. The offense often went stagnant with Buie sitting, and the result was a shocking halftime deficit. No. 0 would not let that stand.
“I was going to make it a point to be aggressive,” Buie said of his halftime mentality. “The plan was to score.”
And score he did. The graduate student erupted after the break with 16 points on 5-for-6 shooting and 3-for-4 from the charity stripe. Buie’s 32% shooting from beyond the arc last season transformed into a distant memory, as he canned four of five looks from beyond the arc. That included this heave from near-parking lot distance in the middle of a 13-2 run.
In the first half, Buie showed off his ability to distribute. In the second, he showcased his scoring prowess. The nine-point clunker against Mississippi State was clearly an aberration, as Buie now has 15 or more points in every other game this year. If he’s able to keep the three-point and assist numbers up, this team is going to be tough for any opponent to stop.
Ty Berry is the X-factor (and maybe the third-best guy)
Welsh-Ryan Arena may have hit its decibel peak midway through the first half when Berry drained a three-pointer off a feed from (who else?) Buie on a fast break. Not only did the shot go in, but NIU guard Zion Russell plowed into Berry, meaning the Wildcats would have a four-point play opportunity. Berry would not be the one to convert the free throw, though: he turned his ankle on the play and had to go to the locker room.
By the time Berry checked back in (over four minutes later), the 22-11 Wildcat lead had been cut to 26-20. The stretch was part of a major NIU run that resulted in the Huskies tying the game at 29 — Berry’s absence was the main reason why. He was the primary defender on NIU’s leading scorer David Coit, who had five points during the comeback run (all with Berry off the court).
Luckily for Berry and the entire team, the ankle was fine, and the senior played all but two minutes of the second half. He was a +27 for the final 20 minutes, which tied for a team-high, and his smothering defense on Coit (who went just 1-for-5 from the field in the second frame) was a big reason why. Berry’s defense also fueled several offensive opportunities, especially when he would get a steal on the perimeter like this one.
The guard would finish the game with 14 points and an eye-popping five steals, arguably his best performance of the season to date. After the game, Collins called Berry “fantastic” and said that his defense was “on point.” If a player who was top 10 in the Big 10 in steals last year with 1.4 per game can keep up the leather larceny, Northwestern’s defense should remain one of the best in the conference.
The second unit needs to stay sharp
Heading into Monday night, Northwestern was one of the worst teams in the country in terms of bench production. The mark of 9.0 bench points per game was the fifth worst in the entire country. But after 22 bench points last night (including 11 from Nick Martinelli), the Wildcats have climbed all the way up to ... twelfth from the bottom at 11.2 bench points per contest.
This isn’t new for Chris Collins-led teams. Since 2020, Northwestern has had just two players (2022 Ryan Young and 2023 Brooks Barnhizer) average more than six points per contest while starting less than two games. But this season, the non-starters have really struggled to get going. The previous high for bench points was 12, which the team pulled off against Dayton and Rhode Island.
Martinelli could provide a potential fix. As already mentioned, he was responsible for half of the team’s bench points thanks to his 5-for-6 shooting night. However, that mark isn’t a huge aberration: Martinelli was shooting nearly 48% from the field before Monday, a higher clip than any starter but Nicholson.
The floater is obviously key in Martinelli’s offensive repertoire, but he also showcased a deep jump shot that stretched the floor nicely. That included splitting his two attempts from long range (which tied a career-high for a single game), and as evidenced by that clip, defenses are beginning to respect the sophomore from farther out. If Martinelli continues to evolve offensively, Collins will probably provide him with even more opportunities.