They don’t ask how, just how many.
In front of a sleepy Welsh-Ryan Arena on a Sunday afternoon, the ‘Cats found themselves in a 40-minute slugfest against a scrappy Nittany Lions squad. While Chris Collins did not call it a rock fight, it was the type of grind-it-out, shot-not-falling game the Wildcats became known for on their journey to the NCAA Tournament last year. This season, however, NU has found itself in shootouts nearly every night, falling into the bottom third defensively in the conference.
In the preseason, Collins said that any game above 70 points does not bode well for the Wildcats, yet the ‘Cats have allowed 70 points in all but three Big Ten games this season and only one below 68 points. So when the shots are not falling like they usually do on Sunday afternoon, the Wildcats connected on 31.7% from the field, the odds of walking away victorious sinks quickly. Yet, the Wildcats did just enough to eke out their eighth Big Ten win of the season.
“This was the best win of the year for us,“ Collins said postgame. “Some Big Ten games you have to grind them out. It’s not going to be pretty every game... You just have to figure out how to win, and that’s what we did.”
Don’t get me wrong, Penn State deserves a ton of credit for shutting down the Wildcats’ potent offense. Ace Baldwin Jr. raised hell on the perimeter, making it difficult for Boo Buie to get downhill or create enough separation to hit from beyond the arc. Qudus Wahab also was a dominant rim protector, swatting multiple attempts by the ‘Cats at the rim. However, the biggest missing piece to the ‘Cats’ offense was Ty Berry. Berry, who shot a ridiculous 49% from deep in the month of January, was sidelined on Sunday with a knee injury. Without Berry on the floor, the Nittany Lions had one less shooter to worry about on the floor, the Nittany Lions could focus on neutralizing Agent Zero, throwing two defenders at him throughout the game.
“You can’t run plays, you have to make plays,“ Collins said about facing the Nittany Lions.
Without Berry, NU’s third-leading scorer, and a rough day from the field for Northwestern’s usual offensive juggernauts in Buie and Brooks Barnhizer, the Wildcats needed to find contributions from the top to the bottom of the rotation, and they sure did.
“When one person goes down, it doesn’t require just one person to step up, everyone has to step up,” Buie said postgame. “Everyone contributes a little bit to make up to that whole.”
For a team that usually wants to play on the perimeter, a new element to the starting lineup changed the style of play. Nick Martinelli slid into the starting five to replace Berry and brings his post-play “herky-jerky” hook shot into the game. At 6-foot-7, Martinelli uses his body to get inside, somehow always getting to his left hand and finding the bottom of the net. When asked about him postgame, Penn State head coach Mike Rhodes said it didn’t matter if you know Martinelli’s going to spin to his left hand, he just makes it work. Even though I, nor Chris Collins, can figure out why it works, Martinelli’s 11 points helped the ‘Cats edge out the Nittany Lions.
The other big (yes, pun intended) performance came from Matt Nicholson. Nicholson has looked more like the 2022-23 version of himself after returning to the starting lineup in mid-January. Sometimes, being benched is a wake-up call, and it sure looks that way for No. 34. While Nicholson had two rim-rattling throwdowns, including one that resulted in an electric floor slapping on the other end, the play that stuck out most to me was his assist from the top of the elbow, finding Martinelli on a backdoor cut for an easy jam. There was once a point where Nicholson had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in all of college basketball, and his ability as a passer makes him much more of a threat on the court.
Also, his eight rebounds against PSU were his highest of the season. With Berry out of the lineup, Nicholson will have to become more involved in the offense to help make up No. 3’s lost production. If Sunday’s performance is any indication, the senior center looks to be hitting his stride when NU needs it the most.
“We get on Matt a lot to just let it out because he’s got that fire in him,” Collins said postgame. “We’re a better team when Matt plays with that fire and energy.”
While the starting five will carry the brunt of the load, NU’s already thin depth will have to step up with the sixth man slotting into the lineup, Guys like Jordan Clayton, who has only played 53 minutes of Big Ten action and has not scored a point, Justin Mullins, who has played a total of 19 minutes this season and has not scored a point, or even a walk-on like Blake Smith, who did not have a stat recorded on Northwestern’s website before Sunday, will all have to play meaningful minutes down the stretch for the ‘Cats. Is it less than ideal? Absolutely; however, these are the cards Chris Collins and Co. were dealt. If the Wildcats want to hold onto that vaunted double bye, someone from the bench will have to unexpectedly step up because three bench points will not cut it in the Big Ten or the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s all hands on deck,“ Collins said. “That’s why you have a team. You never know when something is going to pop up and you’re going to lean on those other guys.”
With Boo Buie and Brooks Barnhizer still running the show, Berry’s absence does not sink the ‘Cats’ chances of reaching the postseason; however, it is going to take a complete team effort to replace everything No. 3 does on the floor. Against Penn State, the Wildcats did just that. On one of the worst shooting performances of the year, NU still found a way to leave the floor with a win because each member who stepped on the court did their job. That is a winning formula for the ‘Cats, who will have to step up and answer the bell twice this week on the road.