It seems like every story about Northwestern men’s basketball from mid-January to March began with the 2016-17 team, so let’s start there.
After making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history, Northwestern returned six of the eight players on that squad who averaged more than 10 minutes per game. Four were starters, and the ‘Cats brought in Anthony Gaines, who was a top-10 recruit in school history at that point. NU seemed to have everything in place to enjoy another good year with a senior-heavy team, and to build on that success for years to come.
However, a seven-game Big Ten losing streak to close out 2017-18 began to tear that framework down. Those droughts became a yearly occurrence, Welsh-Ryan Arena’s student section fell silent and the hope that the Wildcats would consistently position themselves in tournament contention didn’t just disappear; it was forgotten. In five years, Northwestern had readopted its enduring identity as the Big Ten’s small and lovable loser that was just happy to be there. Instead of helping its stars lead winning teams, it took pride in the fact that winning teams took those players away:
“I guess when you lose one to Duke and one to North Carolina, you’re developing well,” Collins said of Nance and Young’s transfers.— Alex Cervantes (@CervantesPAlex) October 6, 2022
Then 2022-23 happened, and Evanston lit up with the joy of watching a team defy its low expectations. But then it ended, and the questions regarding whether Northwestern would sustain this success and prove it could back up its claims that this wasn’t just another miracle run came to the forefront.
And more importantly, could the Wildcats erase their seemingly permanent underdog label?
That was a big ask in 2017 even when Chris Collins brought back most of his key players, and it appears even more challenging now given he’s been dealt a much worse hand. His two offensive engines in Boo Buie and Chase Audige have declared for the NBA Draft while maintaining collegiate eligibility, and fellow senior Robbie Beran transferred to Virginia Tech. To make matters worse, NU lost Julian Roper II, one of its most promising underclassmen, to Notre Dame in the transfer portal.
For any school — let alone one in the loaded Big Ten — it would be perfectly acceptable to bite the bullet by tempering expectations and shifting focus to developing its young core. When taking into account that — as one Inside NU commenter put it — the next step for Northwestern would be making the NCAA Tournament every three seasons instead of once every five, it would be even more reasonable to call 2023-24 the beginning of a reset.
Much like he’s done the past few months, Collins responded by making history. He brought in three transfer additions: Denver rising sophomore Justin Mullins, Liberty grad transfer Blake Preston and Princeton grad student Ryan Langborg. According to RealGM, Northwestern hasn’t added three transfers in a single offseason since at least 2002, which is as far back as the site goes.
While it is true that NU simply needed to fill out its roster with five scholarship players likely leaving, these aren’t just depth adds. Langborg was the second-leading scorer on a Sweet 16 team, and Mullins averaged 1.5 steals per game while shooting over 50% from the field and about 37% from three-point land as a true first-year. Even Preston, who figures to be more of a rotational piece, is a great lob threat who started for a 27-9 Liberty team that came within a game of making the NCAA Tournament.
At a place like Northwestern, where academic requirements already whittle the Wildcats’ transfer targets down to just current first-years and seniors, adding three quality Division I starters is especially impressive.
Since there’s a real possibility Mullins and Langborg form next season’s starting backcourt — in addition to the fact that the former Princeton guard and Preston are both grad transfers — it’s clear Collins made these moves to double down on winning now. Even though Northwestern will likely be a less-talented team assuming Buie and Audige don’t return, it might have just as much depth, if not more. For the second unit, Preston brings a paint presence on offense that Tydus Verhoeven lacked. Also, the ‘Cats probably won’t need to rely on one or two scorers to stabilize the offense, which would prevent defenses from keying in on primary ball-handlers and forcing contested shots late in the shot-clock as they often did with No. 0.
On the defensive side, Northwestern now appears to be as switchable a team as they come. While Buie made strides on the defensive end last year, his 6-foot-2, 180-pound frame allowed teams to hunt mismatches by switching him onto their wings. Langborg is two inches taller and weighs almost 200 pounds, while Mullins stands two inches taller than Audige at 6-foot-6 as a true freshman.
Because assistant coach Chris Lowery’s post-trapping scheme forces Northwestern’s defenders to quickly cover the nearest open perimeter player after helping inside, having defensive playmakers everywhere on the floor is key. With a starting lineup featuring Langborg, Mullins, Ty Berry, Brooks Barnhizer and Matthew Nicholson, the Wildcats would have four guards between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6 who have the strength to handle stretch-fours while possessing the quickness to dance with point guards in isolation. That’s about as versatile as you can get, and it could make their already-stout perimeter defense even better. And this is a team that is expected to lose the Co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Much more importantly, prioritizing transfers who can add instant impact over ones who will rely on long-term development to contribute a few years down the line — and striking a happy medium in that area by adding someone like Mullins — indicates that Northwestern isn’t gearing up for a brutal stretch that culminates in a 2029 season and runs through the cycle of defying negative expectations while bringing about false hope that lasting change magically arrived. Instead, it’s gearing up for a 2024 season that demonstrates consistent competitiveness isn’t magic.
Whether or not that manifests itself in another March Madness berth or even a spot on the bubble going into Selection Sunday, Collins has set a new standard this offseason that could last for years to come. He and his staff exhibited their steadfast belief that Northwestern can consistently hold its own in the Big Ten, and acted on it.
Even if NU’s less-talented squad has to roll with the punches next year, this marks a step toward making postseason hopes the expectation rather than the exception.