On March 18, 2023, Northwestern men’s basketball players, coaching staff and personnel were readying themselves for arguably the biggest game in program history. In under an hour, the Wildcats would do battle with the UCLA Bruins in the Round of 32 from the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California.
If those arriving from Evanston wanted serenity and quietude in advance of their marquee showdown, they got anything but that. The teams that were occupying the Downtown Commons’ court in the matchup prior to Wildcats-Bruins were No. 15-seed Princeton and No. 7-seed Missouri. Before purple paraphernalia could line the arena’s seats, a flock of orange had to leave first — and there was plenty of euphoria to go around.
Indeed, the Ivy League’s Tigers, fresh off a historic upset of No. 2-seed Arizona, had just beaten the SEC’s Tigers 78-63 to reach the Sweet 16. Paving the way to Princeton’s dream-like run was senior guard Ryan Langborg, who poured in 22 points, six rebounds and four assists to lead all scorers.
As the Tigers returned to their locker room on Cloud Nine, the Wildcats began to depart for their own ensuing Round of 32 game. But, as he’s now learned, the noise from next door was impossible to ignore.
“We were screaming and yelling the whole time,” Langborg said with a laugh. “Apparently, they could hear us in the locker room next to them.”
Although NU’s season came to a heartbreaking end with a narrow 68-63 defeat to UCLA that night, that encounter with their Ivy League arena mates — two schools with similar creeds and deep-seated connections seeing one another in the tunnel — would prove portentous in the next few months.
Only three days after the clock reached midnight on Princeton’s Cinderella run, Langborg entered the transfer portal as a graduate student; Ivy League sports do not allow fifth-year competitors, and Langborg didn’t want to hang up his shoes just yet. A month later, he decided on his new home: Northwestern.
“For me, it was actually the guys,” Langborg said of why he picked NU. “I was on my visit; connected with the guys. They reminded me a lot of the Princeton guys. Love the way they play. Love the coaches. It was a great fit.”
Maybe it’s a coincidence that Langborg’s initial and new programs shared spaces out west in March Madness. But what also tethers Northwestern and Princeton is Mitch Henderson, the Tigers’ head coach, who spent 2000-11 as an assistant with the ‘Cats. Henderson referred to his time in Evanston as “11 happy years.”
“My ties are to those kinds of people,” Henderson said. “You’re always working really hard there. Really happy to see their success.”
During the entire 2022-23 season, Langborg flourished out in New Jersey. His 12.7 points per game ranked second on the Tigers, including converting 33.2% of three-pointers and 82.3% of shots from the free throw line. However, where Langborg transformed from a well-kept scoring secret to a national star was on the magnified March stage.
On the heels of his spectacular showing against Mizzou, the Californian refined his play once more in the Sweet 16. Against No. 6-seed Creighton, Langborg dazzled with 26 points — on an efficient 11-of-17 shooting no less — three rebounds, one assist and two steals. Despite the fact that the Tigers lost 86-75, their odds-defying streak coming to a halt, it was the highest-scoring output of his career in black and orange.
“I can always play with the best of competition — that my play will elevate when I play against better competition,” Langborg said about his March box scores. “I’m hoping to take another leap forward this year and continue playing at that level, and be more consistent at that level.”
In the eyes of his former head coach, Langborg’s unforgettable performances reflect his day-to-day traits rather than a simple point total.
“It’s always there in Ryan,” Henderson said. “In those games, he set some incredible screens; made some gigantic hustle plays for steals. He’s just a winner.”
After culminating four years of work in just three games of March Madness, it could be easy to consistently relish in that spotlight, to harken back to a once-in-a-lifetime run catalyzed by individual acumen. Langborg isn’t forgetting about that stretch anytime soon, but he’s also keeping perspective.
“We still talk about it with my buddies all the time. We watched the games over a few times,” Langborg said. “But now, on to a new chapter. Take the lessons that we learned from that.”
When Princeton guard Blake Peters first met Langborg at a scrimmage in a local New Jersey YMCA, the junior picked up on Langborg’s “West Coast vibe.” After all, the 6-foot-4 guard hails from San Diego, California. But what was also evident to Peters was the veteran’s attention to detail in his craft.
“Very intense. Very focused,” Peters said. “Doesn’t say much. That’s just because he’s very focused and all about his business.”
Despite having an edge in terms of his approach, Langborg didn’t lose the desire to help his teammates improve their own abilities. Peters referred to Langborg as a “consummate leader,” with the two going head-to-head in shooting drills under Tigers assistant coach Skye Ettin.
“It was always first to five makes, first to 10 makes. Ryan was always very competitive, even in non-game settings — he always wanted to win,” Peters recalled. “I think that just kind of speaks to his character, how he plays on the court.”
That fire was especially noticeable during one particular practice at Princeton. With Peters and Langborg on different teams, the former nailed a shot and talked some smack — but Langborg wasn’t having it, even throwing a punch to Peters in the arm.
“I was like, ‘Oh, geez. I guess I crossed the line with Ryan,’” Peters remembered, emphasizing his shock.
No melee ensued, and nobody got hurt. But for Peters, that moment underscored the very essence of Langborg’s passion.
“He’s a no BS guy,” Peters noted. “He doesn’t mess around on the court. Even if it was a close friend like me, he doesn’t take anything from anybody. He’s a cool, relaxed guy, but I’ll tell you what: he gets on that court, a switch is turned. He turns into a beast.”
In spite of treating every practice like an elimination contest, those most familiar with Langborg at Princeton reinforce that his hard-line mentality doesn’t mean there’s no room for development — for himself or his peers.
“By willing to be coached and willing to work hard and accepting responsibility for his own mistakes sometimes,” Henderson said, “the team was able to grow.”
When Northwestern’s second-ever March Madness stint ended bitterly, the team faced uncertainty: which of its stars, its staple players over the last four years, would return? Fingernails were chomped until the very last day — May 31 — at which point the ‘Cats learned that Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Year Chase Audige would remain in the NBA Draft. Audige’s departure came along with the transfer of forward Robbie Beran to Virginia Tech.
With an immediate hole in his starting five needing to be plugged, Northwestern head coach Chris Collins went to work in the transfer portal, ultimately zeroing in on Langborg, an eye toward shifting his team’s style of play relative to the year prior.
“Ryan’s ability to put the ball in the hole, to make plays for others, is something we thought we really needed to address,” Collins said. “We won a lot with our defense last year, and we want to be a little bit more dynamic offensively. I think Ryan brings some of that on the perimeter.”
Langborg displayed his shooting stroke with the Tigers, sinking 66 threes in each of the last two campaigns. Playmaking was evident, too: he hauled in 200 rebounds and dished out 104 assists from 2021-23.
Sans Beran, Northwestern is expected to utilize a “small ball” starting lineup of Boo Buie, Langborg, Ty Berry, Brooks Barnhizer and Matthew Nicholson. Though the Wildcats may not have traditional size or length among that contingent, Collins is energized by a new dimension, emphasizing improved floor spacing, passing and shooting. The reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year specifically praised Langborg’s skillset.
“Ryan’s ability to handle the ball gets you a chance to move off a little bit, and become more of a scorer, and come off screens,” Collins explained. “Not being solely in all pick-and-rolls, which he’s really good at. I think Ryan brings great versatility to our perimeter.”
On the Tigers, Langborg was expected to be one of the team’s alpha scorers on a nightly basis. Now, playing alongside Buie — a First Team All-Big Ten and All-American candidate — could provide more of a complementary role, which Langborg is perfectly content doing.
“Kind of be able to play off each other, hit shots,” Langborg said about the backcourt tandem. “Be able to create when he doesn’t have the ball.”
Having two guards that can attack from multiple spots, especially from downtown, also makes Buie and Langborg a formidable duo. Now, defenses have to be keenly aware of who’s driving versus which player is left isolated beyond the arc.
“The amount of times that you can get in the lane and create space, guys have to help off,” Langborg said. “He’s been finding me for a lot of shots.”
Langborg wore the purple and white from Welsh-Ryan Arena for the first time last Wednesday, getting the starting nod in Northwestern’s exhibition win over McKendree. In 26 minutes of action, the transfer posted 13 points, three rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block, but dealt with foul trouble, getting whistled three times. As the Wildcats begin their full-fledged conference slate, Langborg will likely only face amplified levels of physicality — but it’s something he feels prepared for.
“I think it’s just hitting the weight room hard. Making sure I’m in tip-top shape,” Langborg said. “I mean, Ivy is a lot of playing at a slower pace with guys who play really smart. I think the Big Ten is more fastbreak stuff. A lot of more athletic guys, taller guys. Just adjusting to that, but it’s not too big of an adjustment.”
Tonight, Langborg makes his highly anticipated official debut for NU, with the ‘Cats opening their 2023-24 season against Binghamton. Having made the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in program history eight months ago, this year’s Northwestern team seeks the first ever consecutive seasons of a March run. At the center of the team’s aspirations is the transfer, now donning No. 5 and taking the floor of Welsh-Ryan Arena.
As for what fans can expect out of Langborg, his Princeton peers were effusive in envisioning his impact. Peters, a native Evanstonian, joked that Langborg isn’t in need of his advice of how to navigate the city. But the Princeton guard, familiar with his neighbors, thinks the area will feel fondly about their new addition.
“They’re going to love him,” Peters said. “He knows how to relate to his teammates, and he knows just how to relate to people in the community. He’s got a tendency to excite the crowd — not necessarily with dunking, but just with his, almost like a Steph Curry-esque type of style of play.”
Now under the tutelage of his former boss in Collins, Henderson expressed confidence in Langborg’s continued ascent and impact at Northwestern, his understudy being at his former school only incentivizing him to cheer on the ‘Cats.
“They’ll help find something to help continue to grow his game, I’m sure,” Henderson said. “He’s tough as nails, and he’s not afraid of any big moment. They’re getting a hell of a player and person.”
For Langborg, the goal of his fifth year of college basketball is simple: help the Wildcats in any facet imaginable, and return to the zenith of the sport — his experience on Princeton’s magical run only fueling his desire to reach new summits in purple.
“Being my last year, I’m not looking for my own accolades,” Langborg said candidly. “I want to do whatever I can to help the team win, whether that’s diving on the floor, whether that’s scoring a bunch of points, whatever it is. However I can help, that’s my intention.”
In fact, his goal is to take his new institution somewhere it’s never gone before.
“Coming off the Sweet 16 appearance and how special that was, I want to hope to bring that experience and give this school something it deserves,” Langborg said, noting he was told that NU had never reached that stage of the postseason. “I think this group is special enough to do it. We’re all very together, which is exciting and how we were at Princeton. I think we can make it happen.”