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How Northwestern MBB can maintain success going forward

What can the ‘Cats do to make 2022-23 not be looked back as an anomaly?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Boise State vs Northwestern Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Especially when considering preseason expectations, 2022-23 was a surreal year for the ‘Cats filled with a number of iconic moments. Whether it was the storming of the court after defeating then-No. 1 Purdue, hearing “Northwestern” called on Selection Sunday at a program high No. 7-seed or the lighting of the beam after the ‘Cats’ NCAA Tournament win in Sacramento, Northwestern had a year that should be looked back at only fondly. Yet, with three seniors in their starting lineup along with graduate student Tydus Verhoeven providing crucial minutes off the bench, the team could look a lot different come opening tip in November.

Throughout the Big Ten season and into tournament play, the comparisons between Northwestern’s 2022-23 team and the 2016-17 team that brought the program it’s first NCAA Tournament berth and victory were constantly made, and rightfully so. Both of the enormously successful teams were led by two All-Big Ten upperclassmen guards (Boo Buie and Chase Audige in 2023 vs. Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey in 2017) who eventually lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to West Coast powerhouses (albeit Gonzaga has far less of the historically victorious program that UCLA does). These similarities become increasingly concerning when taking into account that the ‘Cats failed to finish above .500 in the five seasons following their 2017 stint — begging the question of how its 2022-23 team can avoid repeating history.

It feels entirely too early to be looking forward to next season, but considering the landscape and pace of the transfer portal, along with the speed at which teams rosters and staff must turn the page to 2023-24, it seems necessary that we do the same. So without further ado, here’s how Northwestern can bring the momentum of 2022-23 into the year to come:

Transfer players could fill shoes of potential losses

As it will for many teams, the extra year of eligibility that COVID-19 brought raises many questions about who will return to Evanston. For the ‘Cats, this concerns the likes of Audige, Buie and Robbie Beran — players that started every single game for Northwestern this season.

Although this is always subject to change, none of these three players are projected NBA draft picks according to ESPN’s most recent mock draft. That said, as last season taught Northwestern with both Ryan Young and Pete Nance, the transfer portal is far from out of the question for anyone from this trio if they decide against pursuing professional opportunities. Further speculation of what the future may hold for these seniors seems unproductive, but once these factors are known, Chris Collins and Co. must look to fill these holes through the transfer portal.

An absurd 1700 Division 1 players entered the transfer portal this past offseason (according to CBS Sports), and the ‘Cats should be able to leverage the success of former transfers Audige and Verhoeven (in addition to the teams overall success) to bring talented veteran players to Evanston. As other Big Ten NCAA tournament teams like Penn State and Maryland showcased this season, the transfer portal can be program altering if fully utilized and the ‘Cats would be foolish to not take advantage of it.

Role players will be older and healthier

There are few players that encapsulate the jump that can be made from one’s freshman to senior seasons than Northwestern’s own Audige and Buie. Even in terms of a significantly shorter time frame, the progression of Brooks Barnhizer coming into 2022-23 and throughout this past season is evidence of how much better collegiate players can improve in just a few months.

Barnhizer is not the only Northwestern player who should continue to grow coming into the new year, as previously inexperienced and soon-to-be senior Mathew Nicholson (who played only 89 minutes in his opening two seasons) and freshman Nick Martinelli (who only became apart the rotation midway through the season) both have now experienced a full season of Big Ten play and two NCAA tournament games. In addition to this, Ty Berry will be entering his senior season looking to bounce back after an inconsistent season from behind the arc.

Outside of the ever so beneficial further experience and offseason improvement Northwestern’s key returning players will have, Julian Roper II and Luke Hunger should be back in the rotation next season. Roper, who was a starter for the majority of his freshman season, was only able to play 15 games this season and hasn’t touched the court since Feb. 2. If Audige leaves, Roper may be the best perimeter defender Northwestern has and is sure to make an impact in 2023-24. In terms of Hunger, the rising sophomore makes the loss of Verhoeven far less daunting, as the 6-foot-10 forward could fit right in place for the graduate student.

The program’s momentum should carry into 2023-24

The ‘Cats already have three incoming freshmen (Jordan Clayton, Blake Barkley and Parker Strauss) set to join the team and may look to add an additional recruit to their upcoming class depending on the decision of its seniors. The role of the underclassmen Barnhizer and Martinelli should work in the ‘Cats’ favor by appealing to recruits looking to make an instant impact.

Outside of roster implications, the ‘Cats’ recent success should bring students back to Welsh-Ryan Arena in bunches next year and likely have an increased number of season ticket holders. It is difficult to quantify just how impactful the crowd was on the Wildcats’ performance, but considering the emphasis Collins and his players put on the role of the student section and overall crowd in seemingly every postgame presser in 2022-23, fans’ support surely played a role in the teams success.

For this reason, the student section at Northwestern is in need of expansion if the ‘Cats are serious about building lasting success for their basketball program. Additionally, addressing the often-empty Wilson Club is something the program is in desperate need of to make Welsh-Ryan a difficult environment for opponents. Of course, this is far beyond the jurisdiction of the men’s basketball staff and players, but in terms of prolonging the success seen this season, further improving an environment that’s already capable of hostility is needed.

Admittedly, these needs are relatively broad and much easier said than done. That said, if the ‘Cats are to avoid repeating the regression they had after their first NCAA Tournament win, an offseason of complacency must be avoided. The transfer portal, additional years of eligibility and the many returning faces returning to the squad bring much reason for hope in 2023-24 that the ‘Cats could make their NCAA tournament win feel much less like an anomaly.