Twenty-five minutes after the last Wildcat shot went up and came down, splashing through the net with 2.7 seconds remaining, and 25 minutes after the final buzzer sounded and Welsh-Ryan Arena erupted in purple cheers, Chris Collins uttered the words that every Northwestern fan has been waiting to hear.
“We’re going to the tourney.”
Over the course of the season, it became an increasing talking point. When the Wildcats pulled off their biggest upset in program history, defeating No. 1 Purdue on Sunday, it was almost a certainty. After Northwestern’s second ranked win in four days, it was finally out in the open.
The Northwestern Wildcats will be playing meaningful basketball in March.
It wasn’t a convincing win. After what seemed like it would be a blowout win early, the ‘Cats collapsed in the second half, losing control of a 21-point lead and giving Indiana the chance to tie the game following several unforced errors. You can look at the number of points NU gave up in the second half or the team’s shooting splits, but the only number that matters at the end of the day is the one added to the win column.
None of that is possible without Boo Buie.
The Wildcats’ backcourt, which Chase Audige called the best in the country, has been touted as the strength of this team ever since the departure of two of the team’s top bigs in Pete Nance and Ryan Young. Collins said before the season that if the team was going to be competitive, they needed the guards to play at an All-Big Ten level. They’ve certainly done that, as Chase Audige has been named to the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Watch List and the pair makes up the only scoring duo in the Big Ten to average more than 15 points per game.
However, despite his performances, Buie has often been the unsung hero to the ‘Cats’ victories. It’s finally time to give Buie his flowers as the face of the Northwestern Wildcats.
Boo Buie embodies what Northwestern stands for. Three years ago, Buie came to Evanston as a young point guard who had stellar shooting talent, but was incredibly inconsistent. By the end of his first year, he was starting for the Wildcats.
The battle between skill and smart basketball plagued the guard for years, as deep pull-up threes with 20 seconds left on the shot clock left the entire arena yelling “NO!” in unison. A combination of bad shot selection and sloppy play were catalysts for several late-game collapses that led to more losses than wins in his first three seasons. Even Collins acknowledged both the highs and lows of Buie’s career at NU.
“A lot of you guys watched through some of those growing pains with him,” Collins said. “He showed flashes, but there were also times where we thought, ‘Man, is he ever gonna get it?’”
And then, it clicked.
Buie’s shooting and dribbling talents have always been on display. But to approach the game in a whole new way, to elevate his teammates to another level, to step up as a leader when the Wildcats needed it the most, and most importantly, to have that result in wins for the program shows improvement beyond what any of us could’ve imagined.
“He continued to develop, he worked hard. He’s just playing with so much confidence,” Collins said. “He’s gotten so much stronger [with] his command down on the floor. He’s balanced. He’s getting to his spots. He’s not only scoring but finding other guys.”
Buie’s dedication not only to working harder and developing his own performance, but also to becoming a “student of the game,” as Collins says, has directly impacted the team in a positive way. There has been no time more evident of this than the past 10 games. As Audige has struggled, Buie has carried the load by stepping up with clutch performance after clutch performance.
On Sunday, he was spectacular. With 7-foot-4 Zach Edey standing in the post, a younger Buie would’ve fired a shot from three on a quick trigger without hesitation. Instead, the senior guard drove into the paint, pushing past Edey and laying in a reverse layup before the big could get there. The late bucket was a part of 26 points that helped Northwestern secure the massive upset over Purdue.
Four days later, it was the same story. As the Wildcats choked away a 21-point lead, Buie delivered three of the last four buckets, assisting Tydus Verhoeven on the other to cap off a 21-point night. On the final possession of the night, Buie reported hearing Indiana’s coaches instruct their players to force him left. In response, he began dribbling left until he saw Hoosier guard Trey Galloway’s foot turn, then he crossed right. After faking out Galloway and gaining space, all that was left was to get to his spot and make the bucket.
It’s not just the fact that Buie is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and shooting percentage. It’s not just the fact that Northwestern is now 19-7 and now sits in the passenger seat of the Big Ten standings. Boo Buie is the face of Northwestern. He is a smart player, whose offensive inconsistencies have become confidence and defensive liabilities have turned into scrappy rebounds and steals. He’s a leader, helping his teammates to buy into an unprecedented defensive identity and leading the team toward its first March Madness bid in six years.
Buie is the reason the Wildcats aren’t sneaking into the NCAA Tournament, they’re soaring in. In four years, he’s become exactly what every revenue Northwestern athlete should strive to be — an underrated hard-worker who combined his own talents with good development and belief in himself to help push an overlooked program into the national spotlight.
And the best thing of all is that the job’s not finished.