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Options to fill Northwestern men’s basketball’s final open scholarship spot

It’s late, but NU still has a few directions to go in.

Penn State v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Three weeks after Chase Audige confirmed his departure from Northwestern, the Wildcats’ offseason still may not be over.

Audige’s decision to remain in the NBA Draft pool leaves one scholarship slot vacant on the roster. But, because most of Chris Collins’ rotation is set in place, another valuable transfer addition would be more of a bonus than a need. Whether he promotes a walk-on or chooses to dive into the portal again to add his fourth transfer this offseason, Northwestern’s roster will be in a relatively good place.

It’s worth looking at the depth chart to get a better picture. This chart is rough, but a few things stand out at a glance (Blake Smith and Gus Hurlburt, who are both walk-ons, are bolded).

Early Depth Chart: 2023-24

Boo Buie (Gr.) Ryan Langborg (Gr.) Ty Berry (Sr.) Brooks Barnhizer (Jr.) Matthew Nicholson (Sr.)
Jordan Clayton (Fy.) Justin Mullins (So.) Nick Martinelli (So.) Luke Hunger (So.) Blake Preston (Gr.)
Parker Strauss (Fy.) Blake Smith (So.) Blake Barkley (Fy.)
Gus Hurlburt (So.)

Even without Audige, one thing is very clear: Northwestern has wing depth, and it has lots of it. Defending the perimeter is going to be much tougher without No. 1 fighting through ball screens at the top of the key, but NU is still an incredibly switchable team, which caters perfectly to Chris Lowery’s defensive aggressiveness.

What the ‘Cats don’t appear to have is a veteran guard on the second unit who can fluidly run the offense as a primary ball-handler while Boo Buie sits. It’s true that Northwestern didn’t really have a proven backup PG down the stretch last season, nor did it need one. After Julian Roper II got hurt, Buie’s minutes were so heavy that almost every five-man combination Collins deployed ran the offense through him. Because Audige spent just as much time on the floor, he spelled Buie as the primary ball-handler when the star point guard sat and when Collins wanted to give him some off-ball action.

This was pretty evident from the eye test, but this is especially jarring: according to CBB Analytics, the ‘Cats played a grand total of 20.5 of their 1,370 minutes without Buie or Audige on the floor. That’s about 1.5%. In case you’re curious, the only one of those remaining lineups that didn’t feature Roy Dixon as the lead guard was a combo of Ty Berry, Brooks Barnhizer, Nick Martinelli, Robbie Beran and Matthew Nicholson. That’s intriguing, especially defensively, but they played only four minutes together.

So, it’s very clear how highly Collins prioritizes tabbing an experienced guard as his lead ball-handler at all times. Even if Parker Strauss and Jordan Clayton flash their talent in the late fall, they may not immediately earn huge minutes in Big Ten play. Ryan Langborg should be the secondary ball-handler assuming he starts with Buie, but NU has more than enough talented wings to keep the Princeton guard from averaging the 34 minutes per game that Audige did last season.

All that is to say Northwestern could use a fifth-year transfer point guard off the bench if it can still find a capable one in the portal. The options are slim at this stage, unfortunately, but crazier things have happened. Greg Dolan, another Ivy League transfer out of Cornell, could’ve been a really fun option as his conference’s second-leading facilitator and a 42.5% shooter from three-point land, but he’ll be playing down Sheridan Road at Loyola. If NU can find someone with that skillset who isn’t a net-negative defender, they could fit right in.

Otherwise, given the rest of the rotation is already solidified, Collins could just stand pat. Northwestern’s two other biggest roster needs would be adding some size at the four and some shooting to the five. However, Hunger fills this first hole; if NU were to go after a power forward, they would likely need to be an instant starter before the rising sophomore grows into that role. The need for a center is even less pressing, and unlikely to be filled given the ‘Cats have already added Blake Preston.

Ultimately, it’s late enough in the transfer season where it’s reasonable to expect that Collins is done making moves. Northwestern’s roster can still improve in some spots, but even without Audige, most of its core is intact. Adding a backup point guard could take a major load off Buie — especially early in the year to save his legs — but finding a good fit at this stage is difficult.