Coming off a historic season, including making its second NCAA tournament, Northwestern has the tall task of repeating such success in 2023. For the Wildcats, the offseason has been less than stellar, with NU losing half of its rotation from the beginning of the 2022 season. All-Big Ten First Team guard Boo Buie and Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Year Chase Audige declared for the NBA Draft while maintaining college eligibility. Furthermore, four-year starter Robbie Beran and expected starter Julian Roper II entered the transfer portal. As the ‘Cats’ roster expects major turnovers, here is what NU can do this offseason to put itself in a prime position to return to the Big Dance.
Boo Buie and Chase Audige Return
I know what you are thinking — didn’t Buie and Audige say they were declaring for the NBA Draft? They did, however, both did it while maintaining college eligibility. In 2016, The NBA started allowing players to enter the draft while keeping their college eligibility, testing the waters to see if they could leap to the pro level. Players have until June 1 to withdraw their names from the draft pool and return to college. While Buie and Audige are tremendous college players, whether either of them would hear their name called on draft night is still up in the air. Audige, who was one of the best defenders in the nation, has a better chance of landing a two-way contract and heading to the G League first. If neither one can latch on to a squad either in or affiliated with the NBA, they could follow in the footsteps of former NU star Vic Law and play overseas.
If the duo does look to play abroad, there is a wide range of salaries across different leagues. While the Chinese Basketball Association players usually receive seven figures, and EuroLeague players can make up to high six figures, the average person playing basketball internationally makes $700-$2,000 a month, according to Jose Colorado. I would expect both members of the backcourt to get offers in the mid-six figures if they cross the ocean, but with NIL, could Northwestern match the offer?
NU now has an NIL collective with the founding of TrueNU, with all the benefactors of Northwestern, including the one that has given the university nearly a billion dollars to build a new football stadium, it seems possible that the ‘Cats could create a package that is equivalent to what the pair would make overseas. So far, we have not seen Northwestern use NIL to lure players to Evanston, but with how important Buie and Audige are to Northwestern men’s basketball, it would be shortsighted of Northwestern to not make an offer. No. 0 and No. 1 were a big reason why NU sold out its last five home games. Also, by making the Round of 32, Northwestern made roughly $4 million. If the ‘Cats are serious about being a tournament team next year, bringing back nearly 50% of the offense would be a massive success.
Land an Impact Transfer
This one is a lot easier said than done. Because of Northwestern Admission’s archaic transfer rules, Northwestern is only allowed to bring in graduate transfers or rising sophomores, significantly shrinking the pool that the ‘Cats can recruit from. Furthermore, Northwestern’s high academic standards make it difficult to recruit a kid who is trying to leave college early to enter the NBA Draft.
However, as of today, Northwestern only has two true guards enrolled on its roster: Ty Berry and Blake Smith. While Berry had his shooting woes this season, he is expected to play a massive role in Northwestern’s 2023-2024 campaign. Smith, on the other hand, is a completely unknown commodity. Even as NU plans on bringing in multiple guards in its 2023 recruiting class, asking first-years to carry the load in their young careers can be extremely risky, as Coach Collins saw firsthand with a young Buie. By gaining someone who has already played at the college level, NU would be able to fill a hole in its starting five instantly.
The only player in the transfer portal that we know is taking a visit to Northwestern is Justin Mullins. Mullins, a 6-foot-6 guard, played his freshman season at Denver University. He can score the basketball effectively, as his efficient shooting percentage was 51.8%. On the defensive end, Mullins was third in the Summit League with 47 steals and his tough to beat off the dribble. A player who, if developed correctly, can become an All-Big Ten defender like Audige but can also score the ball the Buie would be a slam-dunk commitment for Collins and the program. While not the flashy name that was hoped for, Mullins would be the impact transfer that the ‘Cats are looking for.
Brooks Barnhizer becomes a star
Out of everything I wrote so far, this one feels the most realistic.
Down the home stretch of the season, No. 13 was arguably the best player on the floor for the Wildcats. The sophomore was a spark plug off the bench for NU and became the third offensive scoring threat that the ‘Cats had searched for all season.
In the final eight games of the year, Barnhizer reached double figures in seven of them. Whether it was his signature fadeaway in the post, or burying five threes against the Nittany Lions, Barnhizer can score from anywhere on the floor. When Buie and Audige were struggling in the Big Ten Tournament, Collins turned the ball over to the sophomore and let him run the show. In that time, he went on a 5-0 scoring run on his own to pull the ‘Cats back in the game and brought the United Center to its feet.
His development is probably the most important for any player this offseason because his next leap is to stardom. An expected starter this season, the rising junior averaged 32.7 points his senior year in high school and was named a finalist for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. It is not difficult to believe that he could average Buie’s number of 17.3 points per game next season. If Barnhizer makes the jump and elevates his game to the next level, I would not be shocked if his name is in All-Big Ten Team conversations.