The following article builds off a Part One to this fictional simulation that was published on June 22. It can be found here.
Last week, I embarked on a 5,000-word journey immersing myself in an alternate universe where Ryan Young and Pete Nance remained with Northwestern men’s basketball for the team’s historic 2022-23 season. I didn’t especially focus on answering the what-if questions that come with that hypothetical; rather, I got creative and threw this new NU team into a simulation on WhatIfSports.com to play out its season again.
A brand-new season means unrealistic storylines and results — and that’s fun! If you’d like to sift through how I did this in Part One, which is linked at the top of this article, try to read it more like a book than a comprehensive analysis.
Part One ran from the beginning of the 2022-23 season all the way until Selection Sunday. Northwestern enjoyed lots of success (more on that soon), and some wanted to see how the entire season played out. So, here it is.
But first, for those who feel less inclined to read Part One, get up to speed below:
Where are we?
It’s the middle of March, and Northwestern men’s basketball is less than two weeks removed from winning its first Big Ten regular season title in 90 years. Those great feelings about Welsh-Ryan Arena last winter? Multiply them by two. This is a 23-9 NU team that ripped off an eight-game winning streak in conference play. It clinched a 15-win Big Ten season and the top seed in the conference on Senior Night with a 79-75 victory over Penn State.
With a lineup of Boo Buie, Chase Audige, Ty Berry, Nance and Robbie Beran (plus a loaded bench behind them), the ‘Cats have overwhelmed opponents offensively. Buie, Audige and Nance have led the way, but they make a habit of getting everyone involved. Since a rough 3-3 start in non-conference play that culminated in a collapse to Pittsburgh, who stole a comeback win with a 14-0 closing run, Northwestern has proven itself to be one of the deepest teams in the nation with legitimate second weekend aspirations. Here are just a few of the season’s highlights:
- Buie dropped 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting to defeat Michigan State by 10 on the road (because what else was supposed to happen?)
- Down 14 to Indiana on the road, at halftime, NU stormed back to outscore the Hoosiers by 31 in the second half to win by 17
- Northwestern upset No. 1 Purdue again in overtime, with Nance forcing the extra period with a contested three-pointer after the Wildcats were down five with 34 seconds left
- NU outlasted Iowa 83-80, overcoming Kris Murray’s 32-point, 13-rebound game thanks to a clutch go-ahead three-pointer by Brooks Barnhizer with 1:30 to go
- Led by Barnhizer, Northwestern explodes for 51 points in the second half on the road against Illinois for a comeback win
In the Big Ten Tournament, NU beat Maryland easily before falling to the Hawkeyes, who won the title over Indiana. With a slew of different results — which included the Hoosiers beating Purdue for a third time — the Big Ten’s NCAA Tournament field changed slightly:
IN: Purdue (2), Northwestern (4), Indiana (4), Iowa (6), Michigan State (7), Illinois (8), Maryland (9), Rutgers (11)
There’s a lengthier explanation in Part One, but the biggest changes here are the jumps that NU (a No. 7-seed in real life) and Iowa (No. 8) took. Additionally, Penn State didn’t beat Northwestern at all and lost in the Big Ten Tournament early, which opened up a path for Rutgers to make the Big Dance.
This creates a brand-new tournament:
I tried my best to follow the NCAA’s guidelines, which state teams that have already played each other twice cannot meet until the Sweet 16, while schools that face each other three times cannot meet until the Elite Eight. Additionally, for teams whose seedings didn’t change, I made an effort to keep their first-round matchups the same as they were in March to make organizing the regions less complicated.
Admittedly, this isn’t a great draw for Northwestern. Not only do the ‘Cats have to play Furman, who upset Virginia in the Round of 64 during the real tournament, they’re also right next to San Diego State. And because all of the real-life matchups’ results will remain the same (that is, except for Ryan Young-less Duke), NU will have to go through SDSU to reach the Sweet 16 if it can get past Furman first.
To clarify, I’ll simulate any new matchups here should Northwestern advance. Also, since the rotation I’ve used has worked well thus far, I won’t alter NU’s minute allocation.
Round of 64: vs. No. 13 Furman (W 83-76) (24-9)
Player of the Game: Chase Audige (22 points, two rebounds, two assists, two steals, 6-of-13 FG, 3-of-6 3PT)
Northwestern has won an NCAA Tournament game thanks to the quality that’s surprisingly been the lifeblood of this team: its three-point shooting. Even though Ty Berry struggled mightily, shooting 1-of-10 from three-point land, NU still shot 41% from deep overall. The ‘Cats went up by 14 in the first half thanks to great contributions from Nance, who dropped 13 points and snagged eight rebounds on a hyper-efficient 4-of-5 from the field, and Audige. Chris Collins also got great minutes from Julian Roper, who put up nine points total in his 15 minutes of action.
However, Furman wasn’t done. Led by J.P. Pegues, who dropped 25 points on a lethal 9-of-11 clip from the field, the Paladins whittled the lead down to four and fouled out Buie with eight minutes left in the game. Regardless, NU’s offense continued to generate three-pointers to prevent Furman from even getting within a score. With two minutes to go, Beran sank a long three that brought the lead to 77-70 and iced the game. Audige delivered huge buckets down the stretch, and his free-throw shooting (7-of-8 on the day) sealed the win.
As noted above, since San Diego State and Charleston faced off in real life, SDSU will advance in this scenario to face Northwestern in the second round. Elsewhere in NU’s region, West Virginia took down Missouri 90-80 and Miami pulled away from Mississippi State in the second half to win 78-69. That makes the Mountaineers the only bottom-eight seed in the region to advance.
Round of 32: vs. No. 5 San Diego State (W 91-69) (25-9)
Player of the Game: Pete Nance (26/5/4, 10-of-12 FG, 4-of-5 3PT)
If it hasn’t already, Northwestern cemented itself as the best team in school history with this win. And Nance led the way with a remarkable performance. Twenty-six points is a season-high for him. He and Audige helped the ‘Cats create separation going into halftime after the Aztecs got off to a good start. The forward pretty much put the game away right when the second half began, as he poured in seven straight points in a hurry to drag the lead out to 18 points. Brian Dutcher just had no answer for him.
Nance, Audige, Buie, Roper and Barnhizer all had great offensive days, which put San Diego State behind the eight-ball. With Beran in foul trouble, Young was also a great rebounder off the bench when Beran ran into foul trouble early on.
No. 1-seeded Houston easily beat West Virginia by 19, with six players reaching double figures. That sets up a challenging Sweet 16 matchup. Even considering the Purdue win, the Cougars will definitely be the best team Northwestern has played thus far.
Around the rest of the region, Xavier came from behind to eliminate Miami in a 96-91 shootout, while Texas pulled away from Michigan State to head to the Sweet 16.
As expected for a computer simulation, Cinderellas were even more rare to find than usual. Two double-digit seeds remain in the final 16: Princeton and North Carolina State. Also, three Big Ten teams made it to the second weekend! Terrence Shannon Jr. lit UCLA up with 34 points, helping Illinois beat the Bruins by 17 to advance along with Northwestern and Purdue,
With all three top seeds alive in NU’s region, the chances to reach the Final Four are slim. But it will not get tougher than Houston.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 1 Houston (W 82-78) (26-9)
Player of the Game: Brooks Barnhizer (24/8/0, one steal, 9-of-13 shooting in 24 minutes!)
I feel like I have to keep posting the box scores here to show this is real, so here it is.
This is the greatest game in Northwestern men’s basketball history. The first half was about as back-and-forth as a game can get. So was the second, with much more drama.
Audige got the ‘Cats going quickly, knocking down a midrange and a three-pointer off two feeds from Young to go up by eight. On the next possession, however, Marcus Sasser converted an and-one, which somehow fouled out Beran with over 10 minutes left in regulation. That brought in Barnhizer, who quickly put up 10 points in three minutes. NU held onto a 55-51 lead with a little over 10 minutes to go.
But, that’s when Houston gained steam. The Cougars embarked on a 14-0 run and held Northwestern scoreless for three minutes. The game seemed like it would end right there, but the ‘Cats had other plans.
They chipped away at the deficit, with Audige burying a midrange jumper and Young converting a second-chance opportunity that Nance created for him. Another Barnhizer three cut it to 65-62 with 5:27 to go, but Emanuel Sharp answered with a bomb of his own. Nance responded with yet another three-pointer, though, and NU stayed within range.
With two minutes to go, down one, Barnhizer was fouled on a jumper, and he hit the contested pull-up to take the lead. Hard to ask for a more signature moment than that. Berry knocked down a huge three a little later, and Nance enjoyed another capstone moment of his own. With a minute left, he drew an and-one on a jumper to extend the lead to nine.
Marcus Sasser then briefly turned into Reggie Miller. He swished two three-pointers on Houston’s next two possessions, and a Nance miss as the shot-clock expired gave him a chance to tie the game. Fortunately for Northwestern, that last three-pointer did not fall.
Chris Collins and the Northwestern Wildcats are one win away from the Final Four.
The ‘Cats will play Xavier, who came from behind to beat Texas by 11. Point guard Souley Boum had another great game with 24 points and six assists, and he will enter the Elite Eight as one of the hottest players in the entire tournament.
Kansas, Gonzaga, Alabama, Creighton, NC State and Illinois (!) round out the Elite Eight. The best game in the Sweet 16 slate was easily Bama-Virginia, which ended 75-74 after Noah Clowney converted a go-ahead tip-in opportunity for the Tide with five seconds left.
A tournament rematch with Gonzaga in the Final Four and an Illinois-Northwestern national title matchup are still possibilities, if the ‘Cats can get there.
Elite Eight: vs. No. 3 Xavier (W 86-76) (27-9)
Player of the Game: Audige (14/4/3, two steals, 5-of-9 FG)
Northwestern is going to the Final Four. However surprising you’d like to consider the real season, this would beat that 10 times over.
NU kept up with the Musketeers in the first half with its score-by-committee offense. Even when it found itself down nine early, Northwestern buried a few three-pointers in a row to fight back and keep the game very close.
Through the early part of the second half, Northwestern found itself in the driver’s seat with the lead. Xavier didn’t let its deficit stretch past eight points, but never cut it to within three. Well, that was the case until the 7:15 mark, when Buie picked up his fourth foul.
He remained in the game, but after the teams traded buckets one more time, Xavier ripped off an 8-0 run to take a five-point lead. Undeterred, Beran drew a foul and made a layup, converting the and-one. Two more free throws from Buie tied the game at 71 with a little over three minutes to play, making the T-Mobile Center’s atmosphere as intense as ever.
Boum hit his third three-pointer of the game to take a 76-73 lead with 2:14 to go. Northwestern would hold him — and Xavier — scoreless for the rest of the contest. The decisive sequence came with 1:26 to go, when Roper nailed a go-ahead three from the left corner and Audige followed that up with a steal. After a parade to the free throw line, the Wildcats had emerged from a cloud of dust.
They’ll be playing Gonzaga, who might have just survived the game of the tournament. The Zags stunned Kansas 87-86 in overtime, coming back from down 15 points with five minutes remaining in regulation. A Nolan Hickman layup with 10 seconds to go in OT won the game for Gonzaga, giving Northwestern a chance to avenge the 2017 team.
On the other side of the bracket, Brandon Miller’s 31 points fueled Alabama to a 90-88 comeback victory over Creighton, and Illinois prevailed in a double-overtime marathon against North Carolina State. That game had not one, but two buzzer-beaters. The more ridiculous sequence came in the first overtime, when Dain Dainja drained a Laettner-esque midrange jumper off a pass from the opposite baseline after D.J. Burns put NC State ahead with two seconds left.
This means that Illinois and Northwestern could potentially face off to determine which program will bring home its first national championship. That is a literal fairytale.
Final Four: vs. No. 3 Gonzaga (L 98-78) (27-10)
Player of the Game: Beran (19/2/2, one steal, one block, 6-of-11 FG, 4-of-7 3PT)
Unfortunately, the run comes to an end here. Gonzaga took a double-digit lead early and never looked back. Six Zags scored 10 points or more, and the team shot 56% from the field. Nance and Buie didn’t shoot well, and Audige found himself in foul trouble early. Once again, a magical Northwestern season ends at the hands of Mark Few.
As a consolation prize, Gonzaga did end up winning it all, defeating Alabama 91-89 thanks to some huge late-game shots by Rasir Bolton.
Is this realistic? Certainly not. What would change as a result of all this? Who knows. All one can really say is that this would have been an incredible alternate universe to be a part of.