It’s starting to feel like 2017 in Evanston again.
No, the Patriots didn’t just come back from a 28-3 deficit in the Super Bowl. No, the wrong winner for “Best Picture” at the Oscars was not just read.
However, just as in six years ago, the Northwestern Wildcats men’s basketball team has compiled a season for the ages and is on the precipice of making the NCAA Tournament.
As 2022-23 has unfolded and the shock of NU’s unreal campaign has worn off, people have inherently flashed back to the magical 2016-17 season, in which the ‘Cats made the Tourney for the first time in program history. It’s natural, after all, to inquire — especially when Chris Collins was at the helm in both years.
This season’s ‘Cats still have four regular-season games remaining, not to mention the Big Ten Tournament in early March and the upcoming NCAA Tournament after that. Nonetheless, it’s still a compelling thought exercise to examine how Northwestern’s 2022-23 squad stacks up to its six-year predecessor. In order to streamline the analysis, I’ll break down the comparison between the teams into three major categories: schedule, statistics and overall roster.
Take a trip back down memory lane, put on your superstitious purple hat that hasn’t been worn in six years, and let’s determine how similar these two storied seasons really are.
In 2016-17, Northwestern started 2-0 but lost its third game of the year at Butler on Nov. 16; for context, the Bulldogs would finish as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament that season, reaching the Sweet 16. For contrast, this year’s ‘Cats began 5-0, suffering their first loss to No. 13 Auburn on Nov. 23.
Despite a close loss, the 2016-17 Wildcats rebounded in a major way, putting the nation on notice with a 77-58 drubbing over No. 22 Texas in Brooklyn. Granted, the Longhorns wound up going a measly 11-22, but a statement win in a grand venue nonetheless.
While Northwestern did drop its following game to Notre Dame, the ‘Cats proceeded to enjoy a nine-game win streak, which included giving Dayton one of its eight losses on the year. After a defeat to Michigan State in East Lansing to close out 2016, Northwestern sat at 12-3 entering the new year.
This year’s Wildcats returned from a strong showing in the Cancun Challenge and were absolutely bludgeoned at home by Pitt, falling 87-58 in possibly their worst loss of the year. Yet, Collins & Co. didn’t flinch, downing No. 20 Michigan State in the Breslin Center just six days later. Overall, NU finished 2022 10-2 and on a five-game win stretch.
Both teams dropped their home openers after the turning of the calendar, whether Ohio State (2023) or Minnesota (2017). After the loss, though, the 2017 Wildcats rattled off six victories in a row, including beating Indiana — which ended No. 44 in KenPom despite missing the Big Dance. Likewise, the 2023 team earned significant wins over Illinois and No. 15 Indiana to turn the tide.
Though this year’s Northwestern contingent fell in consecutive games to Rutgers and Michigan, NU was able to reset after a COVID-19 outbreak, prevailing three times in six days. After an 86-70 loss at Iowa, the ‘Cats entered February 15-6 compared to an 18-4 record by that point in 2017.
Following a two-game losing streak to No. 23 Purdue and Illinois to open the second month of 2017, NU picked up a signature victory, beating No. 7 Wisconsin in Madison on Feb. 12. Six years subsequent to that day, Northwestern earned maybe its biggest win in program history, upsetting No. 1 Purdue 64-58.
The 2017 ‘Cats ended the regular season on a bit of a skid, finishing 2-4 with losses at the hands of No. 23 Maryland, Illinois, Indiana and No. 16 Purdue. Nonetheless, Northwestern effectively secured its spot in March Madness with its dramatic, unforgettable 67-65 win over Michigan on March 1, notching its 10th conference victory. Ultimately, the 2016-17 team finished 24-12 with a 10-8 record in conference play, good enough to be the No. 6 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. The team was ranked No. 25 in the AP Poll the week of Jan. 30 but not at the end of the year.
In present time, the Wildcats are enjoying a five-game winning streak, playing their best basketball deep into the season with an AP ranking of No. 21. With four games to go in the regular season, NU sits at 20-7 with an 11-5 mark in the Big Ten and a second-place standing in the conference.
Northwestern’s 2016-17 team ended ranked 38th in KenPom efficiency, with the 59th overall offense and 32nd defense. Through this point, the ‘Cats are No. 42 in KenPom with the 100th overall offense and 21st defense.
Six years ago, the Wildcats scored 71.1 points per game while permitting 65.5 per contest; now, NU scores only 68.5 PPG but permits only 61.9 PPG. Both sets of statistics reflect that the present Northwestern team plays a worse offensive brand of basketball but is slightly better on the defensive end.
For more indication of similarity, the 2016-17 team shot 43.6% from the floor, while this year’s team is at 41.1%. Moreover, only .4% separates the free throw shooting of each squad.
This year, Northwestern has utilized turnover margin as its anchor, and the stats back that up historically. NU is forcing an average of 14.4 turnovers per game while committing only 10 of its own, yielding a conference-best 4.44 turnover margin. On the other hand, the 2016-17 Wildcats had a turnover margin of only 1.3. In part, the differences in giveaways can be attributed to the current ‘Cats notching a whopping eight steals per game — that number was only 5.3 six years ago.
Part of the reason that the 2016-17 and 2022-23 Northwestern teams feel so inextricably linked is that both were buoyed by guard play.
Six years ago, it was Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey leading the charge for the purple and white. McIntosh started all 36 games, averaging 14.8 points and 5.2 assists per game en route to Second Team All-Big Ten honors. Likewise, Lindsey made 32 starts, scoring 14.1 points per game — good enough to make the All-Big Ten Third Team.
If that sounds familiar, you aren’t mistaken.
Northwestern has been paced by the guard tandem of Boo Buie and Chase Audige all year. Averaging 17 PPG and 4.6 APG, Buie ranks sixth in the Big Ten in scoring and fifth in distribution and is on his way to a First Team All-Big Ten Nod. Audige, too, is averaging 14.8/3.3/2.9 with a ridiculous 2.4 steals per game, very likely in position to win the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year Award.
While guard work is what meshes these two historic teams, what ultimately separates the starting fives is the frontcourt.
NU’s tandem of Vic Law, Sanjay Lumpkin and Dererk Pardon produced at a more consistent clip for the 2016-17 ‘Cats. Law provided Northwestern with a legitimate third scoring option, averaging 12.3/5.8/1.8 and playing outstanding defense; the forward was named to the conference’s All-Defensive Team. Though Lumpkin added only six points per game, Pardon was a force to be reckoned with at center, averaging 8.6 PPG with eight rebounds and 1.8 blocks to go along with it.
Conversely, Northwestern has not witnessed reliable production from its three starters alongside Buie and Audige in Ty Berry, Robbie Beran and Matt Nicholson. Nicholson averages 6.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, yet only in 20.6 minutes per contest — nearly 10 full minutes below Pardon’s mark. Further, Berry and Beran have both been inconsistent on the offensive end but have made plays in other facets.
For both teams, bench contributors were key to not only providing rest, but also for catalyzing winning basketball. In 2016-17, it was the likes of Isiah Brown, Gavin Skelly, Nathan Taphorn and Barret Benson; this year, it’s Brooks Barnhizer, Tydus Verhoeven, Nick Martinelli and Julian Roper II (when healthy). While Collins’ primary five earned the lion’s share of minutes six years ago, Barnhizer and Roper II rank fifth and sixth in playing time, respectively, among this year’s bunch, indicating less reliance on the starters.
All told, there truly are some noticeable parallels between what are likely to be considered the two best men’s basketball teams in Northwestern history. While 2016-17 featured a more high-flying and deeper offense, 2022-23 has utilized stingy defense to propel its way to 11 conference wins by late February. In some ways, Collins’ current team has already exceeded what occurred six years earlier, but with four games and two entire tournaments left to be played, the 2022-23 Wildcats are still climbing the summit reached in 2016-17.