When Pete Nance and Ryan Young announced their departures from Northwestern on April 25 and April 30, respectively, two things were assumed: a) the Wildcats would be quite bad in 2022-23, and b) that younger players would have a golden opportunity to fill such massive voids.
While the second concept ended up coming to fruition, nobody could have been more wrong about a). In fact, those ideas are inexplicably connected to one another.
It was widely presumed that NU’s starting five would incorporate veterans Boo Buie, Chase Audige and Robbie Beran, but who would fill the remaining two spots? Who would come off the bench to provide energy?
After playing in 29 games and making 15 starts in his first year in Evanston, a number of ‘Cats fans assumed sophomore Julian Roper II would capitalize on that opportunity. However, due to illness and an ankle injury, Roper has played in only 15 games thus far this season.
That’s where Brooks Barnhizer enters the fray.
As a first-year, Barnhizer saw the court in only 11 games, totaling a diminutive 82 minutes and scoring only 19 points. Fast forward a year, and the 6-foot-6 guard has, quite frankly, become NU’s most important player outside of Buie and Audige.
This season, Barnhizer has played in every game off the bench, a role that he’s embraced in spades. All year long, the sophomore has provided energy, hustle and playmaking ability in reserve, notching 105 rebounds, 28 assists, 19 steals and 10 blocks. That effort — sacrificing his body for loose balls, scrapping for offensive rebounds to extend possessions, giving defensive help when needed — has molded Barnhizer into a player that Collins unequivocally counts on night in and night out.
Indeed, Barnhizer has played 518 minutes this season, fifth on Northwestern and more than six times his allotment for 2021-22. He’s been especially significant in the last eight contests, seeing at least 22 minutes in every matchup.
All year, Collins and Barnhizer held out hope that the guard’s impressive play would ultimately translate to better offensive output — and, as of early February, that sentiment has come to life.
In that aforementioned span of games, Barnhizer has scored no fewer than six points every turn. The culmination was last night in Columbus, in which he amassed a career-best 19 points on a gaudy four three-pointers. You knew the sophomore was feeling it when he drained a triple from well beyond the arc with under five minutes to go to put the ‘Cats up nine.
Barnhizer’s offensive hot streak could not have come at a better time for NU, either. Audige has struggled in his last three games, accumulating only 33 points on a 12-for-41 clip. Moreover, Ty Berry has posted no more than seven points in his last five games since lighting it up for 26 in Omaha, and Robbie Beran has reached double figures just once in the past seven matchups.
All campaign long, those following Northwestern have wondered who would ultimately emerge as a third option to mitigate the pressure placed on Buie and Audige. The clear answer at the moment: Barnhizer.
At 17-7 and 8-5 in the Big Ten, the Wildcats have a 76.6% chance of making the NCAA Tournament for only the second time ever, according to Barttorvik. But, with seven games to go, the final stretch won’t be easy. NU has three litmus tests arriving at home in the next nine days in the form of No. 1 Purdue, No. 18 Indiana and Iowa, the last of whom the ‘Cats lost to last Tuesday.
While neither Wisconsin nor Ohio State is enjoying the season it anticipated, to leave victorious on the road in the Big Ten can only help one’s tournament resume. If the ‘Cats want to reach the Big Dance and make waves in mid-to-late March, Collins will have to continue calling Barnhizer’s number — after all, he seems to be at his best when the stage is the brightest.