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As Boo Buie says goodbye to Northwestern, the ‘Cats face the near-impossible task of filling a massive void

To say that replacing Agent Zero will be difficult is an understatement.

Indiana v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Well, the blows keep coming for Chris Collins and Northwestern men’s basketball this offseason. And while the ‘Cats’ desire to bring back their core was a long shot, this blow was a punch straight to the gut.

After four seasons, 115 games, 94 starts, 3336 minutes played, two Big Ten Player of the week awards, a First Team All-Big Ten honor (the first for a Wildcat in over a decade) and leading NU to their second NCAA tournament, Boo Buie announced that he has declared for the NBA draft while maintaining college eligibility. Buie has until May 31st to withdraw his name from the NBA window, but he can still enter the transfer portal before that.

Buie departs Evanston after one of the greatest seasons by a player in Northwestern history. Agent Zero averaged 17.3 points this season, and his 588 total points are the third most in a single year in Wildcat history. He had 14 games of 20+ points, and his 35 points against Illinois were a career-high. The senior was responsible for 25% of the Wildcats’ points each contest, not even including his 4.5 assists per game. No. 0 carried the NU offense the entire season, and after years of questioning whether it would click for Buie, Northwestern fans now have to ponder how the ‘Cats will score without him. So as the All-Big Ten player says goodbye to Welsh-Ryan and Northwestern, how do the ‘Cats fill this massive void in the middle of their lineup?

With Buie declaring for the draft, Julian Roper II entering the transfer portal and Chase Audige likely joining his backcourt compatriot in the NBA draft, having signed with a talent agency called League Ready, Northwestern has three guards on its roster right now: Ty Berry, Brooks Barnhizer and Blake Smith. Berry, who will be a senior next season, had a disappointing campaign this past year. No. 3, who the Wildcats hoped would be a knockdown shooter, could not buy a shot for long stretches this season. Berry, who had shot above 35% from three in his first two years, shot 29.1% this season. In a seven-game stretch in the middle of Big Ten play, Berry was 4-of-25 from beyond the arc. The junior is also an off-ball, spot-up shooter type of guard — and has yet to prove he can facilitate an offense as a true point guard.

I will be pushing the Brooks Barnhizer agenda this entire offseason, as No. 13 showed the ability to successfully manufacture points while being the focal point of the offense. My main concern is that Barnhizer’s 6-foot-6 size can be better used on the court than at the guard spot. When Northwestern went to their small ball lineup, Barnhizer slid all the way down into the power forward role for the Wildcats. The former Indiana Mr. Basketball finalist's ability to drive and play physically in the post, as well as his intuition to stretch the floor and drain shots from long range, makes him such a difficult player for a traditional forward to defend. Barnhizer is also an off-ball player whose catch-and-shoot abilities make him a scoring threat from anywhere, but he is not a traditional ball handler. Buie was tasked with creating his own opportunities, using crafty dribbling and his agility to put defenders on their heels. Barnhizer’s tendency is to back his opponent down before breaking out a post move, which is not the most efficient strategy for a true point guard. While I do think Barnhizer is the most likely member of the ‘Cats to be taking the ball up the court this season, he would create a larger advantage for NU if he was able to play as a stretch forward who can shoot the lights out.

Out of the three guards on the roster, one of them has barely seen the court. Smith saw action in three games this year, playing a total of five minutes in blowout wins. He has raw talent that the ‘Cats hope to cultivate and develop, but he is an unknown prospect heading into his sophomore season. It would be extremely risky for Chris Collins to head into the 2023-2024 season counting on No. 43 for major contributions.

With the lack of guards on the roster, Coach Collins will most likely need to find the answer to his floor general somewhere else. So far this recruiting season, the Wildcats signed two point guards, including three-star Jordan Clayton. Clayton, who 247 ranks as the third-best player in Massachusetts, is an athletic guard who is shifty and can get to the rim; however, it would be a tall task for the 6-foot-2 guard to step in and be a playmaker right when he gets to Evanston. Combo guard Parker Strauss also signed with Northwestern, but expect the Californian’s first season to be a developmental year.

The other option for Collins and the ‘Cats is to look into the transfer portal. Although the transfer portal plays a large role in modern college basketball, it is an arduous task for NU. Because of rules set by the school’s admissions office, Northwestern can only recruit sophomores and graduate students who are strong academically, promptly shrinking the number of players that Collins and his staff can attempt to court to Evanston. While the ‘Cats have reached out to multiple players, they have yet to land one transfer. Though other teams in the Big Ten built their team for the portal, the Wildcats are held back by the admissions office, and it will hurt their chance to compete in the conference year in and year out.

Agent Zero was the face of Northwestern basketball for the last four years, but with him gone, the main question facing the Wildcats is who will step up and become the leader of the offense. While I think Brooks Barnhizer is going to take a massive leap next season, replacing the New Yorker is going to be impossible. When the game was on the line, every player, coach and fan looked to Buie to deliver the winning moment — and the senior, this season, never failed to shine when the bright lights were on him.

I’ll never forget being in the front row of the student section against the Hoosiers, holding my breath as the clock ticked down to five seconds. As soon as I saw No. 0’s signature floater leave his hand, I knew that he had delivered NU their fourth ranked victory of the season. My dad, who had never watched a moment of college basketball in his life before this season, tuned in to every game and would send me texts about the immaculate play Buie just made. Walking around campus, the name Boo Buie was heard so often it was like an echo bouncing off Lake Michigan. Buie, choking up, told the media after senior night, “I’m thankful to Northwestern University for giving me the opportunity to be myself.” He dedicated all of himself to the program and the university, taking a lot of criticism over his four years, and he delivered arguably the greatest season in program history. From a personal standpoint, I hope one day he gets to see his number hung in the rafters of Welsh-Ryan Arena.

When Chris Collins was asked at Big Ten Media Day what it would take for the ‘Cats to be competitive this year, the head coach had a simple answer — Boo Buie needed to play at an All-Conference level. Buie did more than just play at that level, earning his way onto the first-team All-Big Ten squad. His departure leaves a massive void, not only on the court as a playmaker and elite scorer, but off the court, as the face of Northwestern men’s basketball. While it will not be easy, if NU wants to continue its upward trajectory of being a competitive, consistent basketball program, it must find a way to fill the massive shoes left behind by the senior guard. How Chris Collins does it is still up in the air, but it will be one of the most difficult undertakings he has had in his 10 years at the helm of the program.