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From Chris Collins to Luke Hunger, Northwestern tapped into its full potential by answering the bell

Responses from Collins, Hunger and Boo Buie showed that the sky is the limit.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Six days ago and 155 miles south, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood was the only stone-faced person in a roaring arena. Up by 25 points with the starters still playing in an eventual 96-66 blowout, his Illini had already broken Northwestern’s jaw. Marcus Domask’s machine-like backdowns punished defenders without mercy and took luck out of the equation. The ‘Cats were down and bleeding, yet all Underwood’s face revealed was an insatiable desire for more.

“We had a tough performance,” Chris Collins said five days later. “What do you do after that? When you get knocked to the floor, do you quit, or do you bounce back and fight?”

Yes, that’s a cliche. But how Collins and his team put those words into action leading up to their 88-74 victory over Michigan State isn’t.

It started with the head coach, who responded to the defeat by taking accountability and scheming up concrete adjustments. Two of them defined Northwestern’s best showing of the 2023-24 season.

The first was a surprise to many, but a welcome one: Collins’ insertion of Luke Hunger in the starting lineup. Hunger was the first big man off the bench in Champaign — where he dropped 10 points — and has appeared to improve each game since November. He offers much more on the offensive end than Matthew Nicholson and Blake Preston do, and can stretch the floor in a way the other two cannot.

The potential has always been there for the sophomore; it was about being ready for such an expanded role. Collins has frequently noted it: Hunger’s season-ending injury in 2022-23 makes him a de-facto freshman. To open with someone other than Nicholson, who has started the last 38 games and was integral to NU’s elite defense in 2022-23, is a serious leap of faith. For Collins, that leap was intuitive. It was rooted in the positive energy Hunger provided during a loss that was devoid of it.

“Just a gut feel on energy to start the game,” Collins said on the decision to start Hunger. “There wasn’t a lot to feel positive about in Champaign the other night, but I thought he was competing. He had some pop to him, he brought some life to the game. I just didn’t like the way we were starting games.”

Hunger met that challenge head-on, immediately establishing his presence with a layup on Northwestern’s first possession of the game. He repeatedly lit that spark until the Wildcats had burnt the Michigan State frontcourt to toast. Hunger’s three offensive rebounds and 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting got the crowd in the game early, and he set a dominant tone on both ends for a game NU seized with its physicality.

The ‘Cats threw the first-half punch that had previously knocked them on the floor. Every crucial hustle play on the glass from the Canadian prompted his teammates to dish out two more blows.

Ravenous with Hunger, Northwestern now possessed Underwood’s appetite to punish.

“I know his last name is Hunger, but [I’m proud of] how hungry he’s been to get out there and contribute to the team and give off effort,” Boo Buie said. “It’s really amazing what he’s been doing for us lately, so I’m just super proud of him.”

The captain was at the heart of Collins’ second adjustment: drawing up more off-ball movement in his offense to make it less reliant on Buie’s scoring.

“We need to move players and move the ball,” Collins noted. “When we get a little bit stagnant is when we watch Boo play a little too much, and that’s not on him. That’s on the other guys, and it’s also the game that I’m calling offensively. Evaluating where we were at, we needed to do some things with more movement.”

The head coach incorporated more off-ball screening to open up cleaner looks for his wings. Ryan Langborg, Ty Berry and Brooks Barnhizer made that change pay off handsomely. The trio went 8-of-15 from three and 17-of-27 from the field to combine for 50 points. Berry, who led Northwestern with a season-high 22 points, was excellent from start to finish.

However, none of that would have been possible without Buie’s willingness to defer. On a night when the Spartans were mostly on the ropes, the guard started just 1-of-4 from the field, and Tyson Walker was serving him a steady diet of threes on the other end. After getting bullied by Domask, Buie appeared to be suffering another knockdown.

In response, Northwestern’s brightest star illuminated his biggest accomplishment since the end of the 2022-23 season: his mastery of recognizing when he should primarily function as a facilitator. Instead of putting the Wildcats in a hole by forcing more tough shots, Buie constantly capitalized on the off-ball screens that freed up his teammates by feeding them. With a jaw-dropping 10 assists and no turnovers, NU’s hyper-efficient point guard looked like another All-Star No. 0 over in Indianapolis.

Although he gathered steam as a scorer in the second half, Buie didn’t need to dominate in that manner to shred a MSU defense that was a top-10 KenPom unit in the nation entering Sunday night. He handed the Spartans their worst defensive result of the season by making smart reads on a possession-by-possession basis.

“You’ve got to continuously play the right way,” Buie said. “Shots will eventually start falling if they’re not. If they are, keep playing the same way, and then if they try to recover out to the shooters, then that’s when I get an opportunity to get downhill. If they help, then kick to Ty Berry and Ryan Langborg, and knock it in.”

That level-headed approach signifies Northwestern’s as a whole this week. It followed up its worst loss of the season by calmly dusting itself off, making well-founded changes and executing them to near-perfection in its best performance of the year. Every single Wildcat starter played well against Michigan State. If defeating the No. 1 team in the nation didn’t make it clear enough, the sky is truly NU’s limit when that happens.

Collins won his third straight game over Tom Izzo, and earned his third Quad One victory before 2024’s first week had passed. An easier opponent in Penn State stood ahead. The program he built from the ground up was now firmly in contention to make more NCAA Tournaments in two years than in it had in the other 83. The packed and passionate student section he desperately pleaded for had become routine.

Fresh off of all of this, Collins stood at the podium in the media room for 15 minutes mostly stone-faced. Like Underwood’s expression, the hardened look in his eyes indicated an urge to conquer even more. Only this time, the object of that desire appeared well within his reach.