Exactly 365 days ago, Northwestern played in a Saturday game just like this one. It had already beaten two ranked opponents, just like the 2023-24 team has. NU sat at 5-3 in Big Ten play coming off a crucial win, and a crowd of students waving balloons and screaming their heads off backed it.
That day, Northwestern’s 81-61 win over Minnesota got so far out of reach for the Golden Gophers that the main storylines of the second half were a student sinking a half-court shot and the crowd earning free chicken sandwiches. Much like that day in January 2023, both of those situations unfolded in NU’s 83-58 blowout over Ohio State on Saturday night. That’s freaky.
Despite those similarities, so many expectations have changed since then. Welsh-Ryan Arena’s electric crowd isn’t as much of a storyline because it’s become routine. Another Boo Buie performance where he looked like one of the country’s best floor generals isn’t at all surprising because his success has become one of the surest bets in college basketball. He’s gone from a surprise All-Big Ten player to an All-American candidate. Most surprisingly, Northwestern is now a team that tends to win with its offense instead of its defense.
Yet, one thing remains consistent: wins. Even 72 hours after one of the most exhilarating triumphs in program history, the ‘Cats maintained their intensity and handled business. The biggest difference is Northwestern’s comfort with that success, regardless of its newfound expectations, play styles and faces.
“[The 2022-23 team] had those big wins where we won five straight [in February],” Chris Collins said. “During this stretch, when you do that, you build confidence. Because you can talk about being good, and you can talk about winning, but unless you go out there and do it under pressure as players, there’s still going to be a little self-doubt. Now what our guys have done, to win 12 games in the league last year to now winning six of our first nine, they’re getting confidence through winning.”
The student section had perfect attendance in Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday night, but doubt was absent. Northwestern addressed every single aspect that could’ve been considered a weakness against Illinois — bench production, defense and rebounding — and excelled at them.
It started with Ryan Langborg. The Princeton transfer has often struggled defensively, sometimes to the extent that Collins has needed to take him off the floor. After flashing encouraging signs against Illinois on Wednesday, he thrived as a post defender against the Buckeyes when targeted early on. Langborg’s effort set the tone for what was arguably Northwestern’s best defensive performance of the season, as it held Ohio State to a 14-of-41 shooting mark from the field.
“I told him in the locker room, ‘That’s the best defense you’ve played all year.’” Collins said. “Everybody chuckled, because we’re always on him about his defense. I thought he was everywhere on the defensive end. His rotations, he was getting deflections, he was keeping the ball in front of him. He’s a really good player.”
“We talk all the time,” Langborg added. “If you put the effort on the defensive side of the ball, everything else will take care of itself. I’ve been focusing on it in practice.”
Nick Martinelli and Luke Hunger lit Langborg’s spark by providing paint offense and the game’s knockout punch early in the second half, combining for 23 points. Hunger, who didn’t play against the Illini after starting NU’s last five games, responded with 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting. After the game, Collins noted that No. 33’s energetic presence and “chippiness” were critical.
Martinelli offered the game’s signature moment. With 10:29 left, he spun his way inside for an and-one, extending Northwestern’s lead to 24 points. Buie walked around half-court and urged on the roaring crowd like a wild conductor. The building got louder for Martinelli in the way that opposing fans in the upper bowl rooting on a second-half push typically add noise.
“I was celebrating him, celebrating us,” Buie said. “He was playing phenomenal, and I just wanted him to feel the fans cheering for him. It just got really loud in there, and put some more game pressure on the other team.”
As if the then-8-0 run wasn’t enough pressure for the Buckeyes, Northwestern doubled down on it with three more minutes of fabulous basketball. It made three of its next four field goals to complete a stretch where it shot 10-of-12. Once the dust had settled, the ‘Cats had completed a 20-1 run, and Ohio State went almost seven minutes without a field goal.
As the clock trickled down, a chorus of “We want Gus!” chants rang throughout the gym, with students clamoring for walk-on Gus Hurlburt to check in when Northwestern led by 35 points. Now, Buie wasn’t the only one conducting the crowd. The players on the bench were standing up every minute or so, collectively becoming his board of directors.
Those dictatorial three minutes looked alluringly season-defining. Northwestern had just experienced one of the more blissful moments of the Collins era with the building’s volcanic eruption following Martinelli’s and-one and responded to it by extending those 30 seconds into three minutes of unbridled joy.
It epitomized NU’s alert response to a program-defining victory just three days prior, and its answer to a program-changing season. A quiet, steady comfort with consistent success is persisting, and it’s allowed the Wildcats to address areas of improvement even as they reach towering highs.
This team shares many characteristics with the one that defeated Minnesota exactly a year ago, but one stands out above the others: No high feels too high for it, both now and in the future.