After 12 games and no shortage of chaos, the Big Ten gauntlet has arrived for Northwestern men’s basketball. Sitting at 10-2, the ‘Cats have experienced the highest of highs in the first two months (handing No. 1 Purdue its only loss, handling Arizona State with ease out in Phoenix) as well as the lowest of lows (that Dec. 13 basketball game). As a result, NU sits squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble heading into January, with several concerns lingering despite a ton of reasons for optimism.
To dive into that a little more, it’s worth evaluating how each player (as well as Chris Collins) has fared thus far. Read below for grades on all of them, as well as some strengths and weaknesses each displayed in their first 12 games. Each is evaluated relative to preseason expectations.
Most impressive strength: Continuing to adequately prepare Northwestern to play up to elite competition
Most concerning weakness: Failing to prevent Northwestern from playing down to competition
Like his team, the reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year has had an up-and-down start to his 11th season in Evanston. His tendency to stick with a (mostly) slow-paced brand of basketball — through both good times and bad — has defined these first 12 games. Despite having four de-facto guards on the floor most of the time, Collins has orchestrated a slower tempo. NU averages 63.5 possessions a game, per CBB Analytics, which would rank in Division I’s fifth percentile. Because of the lack of possessions, the Wildcats are forced to rely on strong perimeter defense and rebounding, which they have often lacked.
Considering the lack of depth in Northwestern’s rotation relative to 2022-23, Collins has done a decent job of working around his team’s defensive weaknesses. His in-game adjustment to remove the double-team off Dayton’s Da’Ron Holmes once the big man succeeded in finding shooters out of the post was phenomenal. Throwing Nick Martinelli at the five hasn’t hurt NU’s defensive metrics too mightily, which is a credit to Collins and the coaching staff considering how much responsibility hard-hedging centers typically have in Northwestern’s scheme.
The elephant in the room, however, is that Northwestern has rarely come out of the gate strong against teams that looked much weaker on paper. Detroit Mercy (and Rhode Island, if you’re bold enough to throw the Rams on that level) are the only below-average Division I opponents that the Wildcats overwhelmed. It’s why NU fell to Chicago State, and that ultimately falls on coaching. Collins has done a good job managing a less-talented rotation without his most valuable defensive chess piece in Chase Audige, but Northwestern hasn’t shown it can consistently handle business when it has a clear talent advantage.
Most impressive strength: Mastering the art of knowing when to defer and when to take over
Most concerning weakness: Perimeter defense
Buie needs to play at an All-Big Ten First Team level to give Northwestern a chance at dancing, and that’s what he’s done. He’s shooting at a higher clip than last year on the same volume. He’s averaging more assists even though NU is playing at one of its slowest tempos in the last decade. Yes, it’s noncon, but there’s not a ton to complain about with No. 0. The Purdue performance alone should make these first 12 games successful for him.
What’s been most impressive about Buie is that he’s improved at finding ways to contribute without forcing shots when he struggles from the field. His lowest scoring total was a 5-point game against Detroit Mercy where he went 2-of-9, and he responded by racking up a 8-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. When Buie attracts a double team, he’s done a good job of finding Ty Berry and Ryan Langborg for clean three-point looks. Look no further than his playmaking at the beginning of the Jackson State game. Instead of forcing contested looks, he got the ball out of his hands and directed it to Langborg for nine quick points.
Offensive consistency and perimeter defense are the biggest concerns with Buie, and neither of those has worsened compared to 2022-23. The only worry is how he struggled on both ends in the loss to Mississippi State, a game where a quality opponent keyed in on him, and he couldn’t overcome it. Northwestern’s going to need Buie to do that against most of the Big Ten, which is something he’s fully capable of.
Most impressive strength: A remarkable post arsenal
Most concerning weakness: A lack of improvement with outside shooting
Barnhizer — the one starter without starting experience before November — was expected by Wildcat fans to do pretty much everything on both ends... and he’s done most of it. Keep Northwestern’s defense together as the new small-ball four? Check. Take leaps and bounds as an undersized post player? Check (that second-half Dayton film was Kobe-esque). Step up when new problems arise, like the centers’ rebounding issues? Check.
Barnhizer is averaging as many minutes per contest (35.6) as Buie and has still maintained a solid defensive presence. Using steal numbers is never a great indicator, but racking at least two in nine of 12 games is very impressive. On the other side of the ball, he’s reached double figures in all but two games.
The one step the junior hasn’t taken is with the long ball, which has led to inconsistency and inefficiency. Barnhizer is shooting just 27% from three, which is lower than his 31% clip last year. Without scoring from beyond the arc, he can’t become a three-level scoring threat, and the four-guard lineup can’t reach its full offensive potential. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t take too much focus away from the fact that his transition from sixth man to indispensable Swiss Army knife has been smooth.
Most impressive strength: Maintaining good shooting splits on high volume, got the Brad Underwood seal of approval
Most concerning weakness: Perimeter defense
Yet another A, and once again, it’s well-deserved. To fulfill general expectations, Langborg had to shoot well. With more talent around him than there was during his time at Princeton, that seemed pretty reasonable with fewer shots. Well, Langborg is shooting better than he ever has and is on pace for the best season of his career on similar volume.
On almost six three-pointers and 10 field goal attempts a game, the grad transfer is shooting 42% from three and 46.6% overall. Both of those are career-bests. In a media availability on Dec. 31, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said he “might be the best shooter in college basketball.” Also, Langborg is averaging more assists despite playing at an even slower pace than he did under Mitch Henderson.
The guard has occasionally run cold (granted, he’s only shot under 40% from the field twice), but that’s to be expected when a player has a high number of three-point attempts in such a slow-paced offense. Langborg has thrived at hitting contested shots, and he’s contributed across the board. That’s as much as you can ask for.
Most impressive strength: Moving more fluidly and efficiently with the ball in his hands
Most concerning weakness: Shooting inconsistency
Berry has shown that he can step up as the clear No. 2 scoring option, which is a plus. As expected, his three-point shooting improved after he shot 29% from deep last year. In fact, he’s shooting at a career-best 41.5% clip while averaging more attempts per game from deep than he ever has. Whether Berry maintains that come Big Ten play remains to be seen, but it’s very encouraging to see how quickly and frequently he can take over a game when hot.
While the senior’s numbers have jumped, it’s been more impressive to see how much he’s improved as a shot creator. As someone whose looks often came from catch-and-shoot opportunities last season, Berry had to become more efficient off the dribble to become NU’s new secondary weapon. He’s done that and then some. Berry’s movement rarely feels wasted, which has helped him create space and attract other defenders. His assist to Barnhizer in the Jackson State game for a midrange jumper was a prime example.
On the other hand, it goes without saying that Berry has to become more consistent on both ends for the ‘Cats to end up with a winning record in the Big Ten. His rough performance against Chicago State was a key reason why the ‘Cats lost, and there have been several games where he’s gone ice cold. He’s probably the best perimeter defender out of the starting quartet of guards/wings, but he has room to improve there too. Not every game for Berry has to be like the Purdue win, but hovering around the 12-point mark at a decent clip from game-to-game is going to be crucial.
Most impressive strength: Rim protection
Most concerning weakness: Staying out of foul trouble, defensive rebounding
Many people are concerned with Nicholson’s lack of offensive output, which I’d argue isn’t the biggest deal with four scoring guards on the floor around him. The major issue is his tendency to force himself off the floor, whether it’s due to foul trouble or because he can’t defend well against lineups with five perimeter threats. Additionally, Northwestern’s rebounding struggles fall on his shoulders. He’s hard-hedged well, and the ‘Cats have played solid paint defense — especially in their last few games — but his impact there hasn’t added enough to offset the struggles mentioned above.
With Blake Preston struggling and Robbie Beran gone, Northwestern has less effective height in its frontcourt. Far too often, Collins has needed to throw Martinelli at the five as a precaution, not as a wrinkle. Nicholson may not need to play heavy minutes — after all, he didn’t last year — but Northwestern needs more defensive production out of him.
Most impressive strength: Taking the 2022-23 Brooks Barnhizer arc, playing small-ball five, his left-handed floater continuing to work
Most concerning weakness: Not stretching the floor... which may not matter
Martinelli playing small-ball five was not on my bingo card in November, and I’m assuming most people didn’t expect him to play... 24 of his 218 minutes as the de-facto five (per CBB Analytics). As mentioned in the Collins section, NU’s defensive numbers haven’t taken a significant hit with those lineups, which is a testament to Martinelli’s ability to adjust to a role he’s never played before.
He was the primary reason why the ‘Cats survived DePaul, and he’s been terrific at finding his spots — the short corners and low post — where his floater, or hook, or whatever you want to call it just continues to scorch earth.
Have you ever played in a pickup game at a playground, and there’s that one 80-year-old shirtless guy who just gets to the corner and hits that shot over and over again? That’s who Martinelli reminds me of. Yet, until it stops working, and he stops shooting at a mind-numbing 60% clip from the field, you can’t label his inability to stretch the floor as a major weakness.
After recovering from a November injury that limited his minutes early on, he’s settled into his sixth-man role and has hit the ground running. There’s a chance that he doesn’t play as much small-ball five as Northwestern faces more bigs, but Martinelli has proven to be indispensable.
Most impressive strength: He clinched the Purdue upset and racked up six offensive rebounds in a half against Rhode Island
Most concerning weakness: Frequently getting in foul trouble
All the weaknesses stated above about Nicholson, but worse. Preston is shooting 10-of-23 from inside the restricted area, and the five-man combination consisting of himself and the four starting guards has surrendered a defensive rating of 133 in 41 minutes of play. That’s just unacceptable.
Preston’s shown flashes — he was the last big standing against the Boilermakers and dominated the boards against Rhode Island — but Northwestern needs far more from the Liberty transfer to feel remotely confident about its frontcourt depth going forward.
Most impressive strength: He’s already providing valuable backup guard minutes as a first-year
Most concerning weakness: Playing turnover-prone basketball
The fact that Clayton is already earning quality bench minutes as a true first-year on a team with three seniors in the backcourt who have NCAA Tournament experience is impressive by itself and deserves praise. The last freshman guard for NU to get this much action this early was probably Julian Roper II in 2021-22. Does that say more about Clayton or Northwestern’s lack of depth? Who knows. Regardless, the true freshman has done more than expected.
Although Clayton has shown great defensive potential, Collins has kept a tight leash on him since Martinelli got healthy. That’s largely due to Clayton’s turnover-prone play; his turnover percentage sits at 30%. Especially in December, he looked pretty uncomfortable handling the ball, and he hasn’t shot well. His 10-ish seconds of play against Arizona State — in which he picked up his dribble and immediately got pulled out of the game — encapsulates that. It’s definitely not something to panic about for a freshman who hasn’t even hit conference play yet, but Clayton hasn’t been exceptional.
Most impressive strength: Post defense and consistent, game-to-game improvement
Most concerning weakness: Hasn’t stretched the floor on offense
Northwestern’s lineup with the highest qualified net rating comes with Hunger at center next to Buie, Langborg, Berry and Barnhizer. Especially in late November and early December, it seemed like the sophomore improved every single game he played. His defense on Zach Edey early in the second half was better than any other NU big that night, and it sparked the Wildcats’ initial comeback run. In his limited minutes, Hunger has shined as a paint scorer and a defender when Preston and Nicholson have run into foul trouble.
Frankly, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be the No. 2 center on this team. If Hunger can stretch the floor a little more (he’s only 1-of-6 from three-point land) and become versatile enough on defense to play a little bit at the four, then that would be the icing on the cake. Nevertheless, he’s gradually earning more minutes; his 15 against Arizona State was a season-high. With the pace likely slowing from here on out, Hunger might see the court even more.
Justin Mullins, Gus Hurlburt, Blake Smith
None of the three have played enough minutes for anyone to make a concrete evaluation. The one thing worth noting is that Northwestern has remained completely healthy. That means any injury, regardless of position, could thrust Mullins into action in the same way Julian Roper II’s absence opened up a spot for Martinelli (whose role was completely different from Roper’s).