After Northwestern narrowly fell to UCLA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, focus immediately shifted to whether Boo Buie and Chase Audige would return to NU for another season. That’s yet to be determined (although Buie has officially declared for the NBA Draft while maintaining his college eligibility), but the ‘Cats were hit with a surprising potential departure when sophomore guard Julian Roper II officially announced his intention to enter the portal on March 27.
Roper had a weird season for Northwestern in 2022-23. He showed promise at times, dazzling with his obvious athleticism and quickness, but his sample size was small. Roper struggled with injuries throughout the season, and didn’t suit up after Northwestern’s loss to Michigan on Feb. 2. That was just his 15th game of the year. When he was on the court, he was a contributor, but he wasn’t on the court enough to take a significant leap in production.
However, losing Roper means the ‘Cats are losing a key part of their future. Should Buie and Audige both choose to leave, Roper was going to be counted on to provide more scoring as a junior on a much younger Wildcat roster. The loss of Robbie Beran, who entered the portal on Friday, just exacerbates this issue. Three of the ‘Cats’ main scoring options last year could very well all be gone, and it stings to not have Roper as a potential replacement.
It was also noticeable when Roper went down this year. Despite the fact that his scoring average was just 4.4 points per game, he also shot the three-ball at a 42% clip and made an impact defensively. Nick Martinelli did a decent job stepping into the rotation, but he couldn’t come close to matching Roper’s ability on the defensive side of the ball.
Assuming Northwestern is losing at least one of Buie and Audige this offseason (I think they’re likely to lose both, but let’s not manifest it), Chris Collins is going to need to hit the portal hard looking for guards. As it stands, the (most likely) locks to return for the ‘Cats next year are Ty Berry and Brooks Barnhizer.
Barnhizer has earned a starting role, and Berry was a starter all season, but neither are going to match the consistency of Buie and Audige, and there is little depth behind them. It’s also probably true that neither of those guys are as likely to make a leap as Roper was.
Roper was also the heir apparent to Audige on the defensive side of the ball. In the Big Ten, you need a player who can handle fast, athletic ball-handlers. Audige, the Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Year, was that guy all season for Northwestern. You just knew he was going to go out there and lock down the other team’s best player. Roper was the player with the most obvious ability to take over that role when Audige decided to move on. If that time is now, the ‘Cats will suffer on the defensive end of the floor, and the impact of that on the ceiling of next year’s team shouldn’t be overlooked.
In the era of the transfer portal, it is hard to project rosters into the future. Everything will change, probably in the next couple of weeks. Depending on who Collins is successful at bringing into the fold, the impact of Roper’s departure could be minimized.
But there is no way to spin it as a positive. Roper is a good player with a promising future who ‘Cats’ fans everywhere were counting on to be a significant contributor to next year’s team and beyond. Yes, there are replacements in the portal. And yes, there are probably replacements in the portal with even higher upside than Roper. But there’s no guaranteeing anything.