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Making the case for Luke Hunger to continue starting

The sophomore has started the last two games for the ‘Cats after Matthew Nicholson started every previous game.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The Northwestern men’s basketball team has had a confusing season so far. It beat No. 1 Purdue AGAIN in December. Then, it suffered a brutal home loss at the hands of Chicago State two games later. Just when it appeared the ‘Cats had stabilized after the gut wrenching loss, they got annihilated in Champaign by Illinois. Now, they’ve won their next two games in Big Ten play, one at home against Michigan State and one on the road at Penn State. The highs have been high, but the lows have been pretty darn low.

A major contributing factor to this inconsistency has been Northwestern’s egregiously poor big-man play. Matthew Nicholson, a senior this year, has suffered a mystifying regression after being an important piece on last year’s tournament team. He’s averaging just 4.3 points (down from 6.3 last season), and, even more concerningly, the seven-footer is averaging just 3.3 rebounds per contest (down from 5.4). He’s also been in foul trouble often, and doesn’t look nearly as physical working in the paint as he used to on offense or defense.

Blake Preston, transfer from Liberty, has been similarly uninspiring. He’s playing just 11.6 minutes a night, but he’s averaging just north of two points and hasn’t emerged as a candidate to take Nicholson’s spot at all. Once thought of as this year’s Tydus Verhoeven, it appears even those shoes are slightly too big for him to fill.

Enter Luke Hunger, the Canadian sophomore who missed most of last season with a foot injury. He’s averaged 4.2 points a night on 61% shooting while playing just 9.6 minutes per contest. The last two games though, games Northwestern won, Hunger has started over Nicholson. That should continue for a number of reasons (not just because he dropped 10 against Michigan State while securing important boards throughout the night).

Firstly, Hunger is smooth in the post. He understands how to maneuver down there in a productive way while Nicholson looks panicked and is turnover prone. Hunger’s post moves are just better, and they add a whole new element to Northwestern’s offensive attack. Brooks Barnhizer is the only other real threat in the post, but he plays the four and spends a lot of time on the perimeter.

Hunger also has the ability to shoot and make threes. He hasn’t done it consistently yet, but he’s shown flashes this season. Giving him more time on the court would allow him the opportunity to get in a rhythm from beyond the arc, adding another element to the offense.

A big who can shoot is a valuable asset in today’s college basketball, and it feels especially so in a league like the Big Ten. This conference is so focused on forcing the ball inside, and features many dominant interior big-men like Zach Edey. When you put a guy like Hunger out there, it throws everything off kilter in a good way because teams aren’t used to defending that kind of threat. Unleash the unicorn, I say.

The last big reason to give Hunger an extended look as a starter is to light a fire under Nicholson. It hasn’t appeared to have that effect in the last two games, but maybe it’ll work eventually. Clearly, Nicholson has another gear. We’ve seen him play better than this, and everyone knows this team would be better if he found his 2022-23 self.

Some might argue that Nicholson is better equipped to handle bigs like Edey on defense, and they’re right. That’s why he’s still really important to this iteration of ‘Cats basketball even if he doesn’t find his way. Nobody’s pushing for Hunger to get 30 minutes a night. Collins should be able to strategically deploy these two in a way that makes sense depending on the matchup.

Hunger should start, though. He’s earned the opportunity, and Nicholson has been given a long enough leash. Credit to Collins: It was time to make a change, and he didn’t hesitate. He identified a fairly obvious problem his team was having, and he made a move to try to fix that problem. Now, he can’t second-guess himself and go back to Nicholson. Not yet.