By Kevin Sweeney
How quickly things change.
At this time two years ago, virtually everything was looking up for the Northwestern men’s basketball program. The Wildcats had just reached their first NCAA Tournament in program history, and even got a win in the Big Dance to prove they belonged. The entire core of that team was expected back for one more season, head coach Chris Collins had been locked down to a lucrative long-term contract, and a beautiful new arena was on the way.
Northwestern basketball was on the map.
Two years later, and it almost feels like Northwestern is starting over. After a pair of sub-.500 seasons and finishing in last place in the Big Ten in the 2018-19 season, the Wildcats and Collins have some soul-searching to do. That magical 2016-17 season could quickly fade into fluke territory rather than something to build on if Collins can’t right the ship soon.
At this point, discussions of that NCAA Tournament team in connection with this coming year’s group are somewhat worthless. Just one player, walk-on Tino Malnati (who redshirted that season) remains from that team. From the coaching staff, just Collins and right-hand-man Brian James remain. Here to usher in a new era of Wildcat basketball is a talented young group, as Collins continues to make significant headway on the recruiting trail. It is what Collins can do to develop and maximize the talents of these incoming players that will determine how Northwestern basketball is perceived nationally in the long term– still a program on the rise with all the advantages that a well-resourced athletic department with great facilities and location have to offer, or a perennial Big Ten bottom-feeder with one storybook run in its past.
Quite frankly, I don’t feel the need to significantly rehash the 2018-19 season. Everyone who followed the program understood the fatal flaw: the inability to consistently produce offense. By every measure, Northwestern was BAD offensively last season. They ranked 309th nationally in 3-point percentage, 310th nationally in 2-point percentage, and 258th nationally in free throw rate. The only area in which Northwestern looked good as an offense was taking care of the basketball (34th nationally in turnover rate), which might surprise you given the well-documented storyline of Northwestern’s point guard woes.
To me, Northwestern’s offensive struggles can be pinned on three main facets: lacking a true point guard who could initiate offense for himself and others, poor outside shooting that caused spacing woes and further bogged down an offense that lacked a dynamic creator (see: point guard), and poor coaching staff adjustments to the roster’s personnel. Let’s expand on these more in the context of their outlook for the coming season.
Ever since Northwestern lost prized recruit Jordan Lathon in late-May of 2018 after the University revoked his admission, it was clear point guard was going to be a problem for the 2018-19 iteration of the ‘Cats. Lathon may not have tangibly changed the outcome of the season had he been available– he had as many assists as turnovers during his freshman season at UTEP. Still, Lathon was the guy Collins had always planned on handing the keys to after Bryant McIntosh graduated, accepting some growing pains in order to develop a player with extremely high upside. It was evident early on that late signee Ryan Greer wasn’t quite ready to run the show in the Big Ten, leaving the ‘Cats devoid of a true point guard they trusted to play significant minutes. Instead, it was point guard by committee, with natural secondary ballhandlers Vic Law and AJ Turner running the offense. As I mentioned before, that didn’t mean a turnover-heavy offense or a team that didn’t move the ball. In fact, Northwestern assisted on field goals at one of the highest rates nationally. However, it was clear when you put on the tape that Northwestern’s offense didn’t run at full gear with those guys running the offense. Collins’ offense requires a lead ballhandler to be capable of making quick decisions out of ball-screens– finding tight windows and attacking them either with the pass or shot. Law and Turner often missed those windows, and that led to a lack of dribble penetration, an inability to get Dererk Pardon enough post touches, and an overall bogging-down of the offense.
That bogging-down effect was further exasperated by Collins struggling to adapt to his personnel. The logical solution to having a team that struggled in the half-court offensively in ball-screen situations would be to implement new offensive sets that did play to the strengths of your roster– for instance, Pardon was a terrific passer for a big man, and that skill was not showcased nearly enough for my liking. Another potential solution that never really came to be was pushing the ball in transition: with Law, Turner, Anthony Gaines, Miller Kopp, and Ryan Taylor, Northwestern had lots of long, athletic players who could handle the ball and wreak some havoc on the defensive end with full-court pressure.
However, it’s not fair to only blame Collins for the way the offense struggled. At some point, players who are billed as good shooters have to be able to hit open shots, and a roster that on paper should have shot the ball excellently from three was one of the worst in the nation from beyond the arc. Law had his worst shooting season as a college player. Taylor shot nearly 10 percentage points worse from downtown than he did as a junior at Evansville. Turner went from 37% at Boston College to 33% at Northwestern. Kopp shot 44% from 3 in high school and 32% at Northwestern. Some of these struggles definitely can be attributed to getting more contested shots or receiving passes that aren’t perfectly in the shooting pocket. Still, some progression to the mean should be expected in 2019-20, as I find it difficult to believe that Kopp, Turner, and the newer ‘Cats continue to shoot worse than they have the rest of their career.
With all the new faces, there are certainly more questions than answers with this Northwestern roster. Here’s my breakdown of each scholarship player on the roster, and what they might bring to the table for Northwestern this season and going forward.
Ryan Greer: Greer enters his sophomore season in a battle for the starting point guard position. At times in 2018-19, Greer looked like the most well-equipped guy to run Northwestern’s offense, looking comfortable handling the ball in in ball screens and displaying a pass-first mentality. However, he’s very limited athletically and struggles as a shooter, both of which make it difficult for him to create space off the bounce. Greer to me profiles as a solid Big Ten backup point guard, but him running the show would seemingly limit this team’s upside.
Boo Buie: While on paper Buie is an unheralded 3-star recruit ranked around 300th in the class of 2019, he closer fits the profile of a lead guard with the ability to score and distribute that Collins looks for. He’s a good athlete, quick in the open floor, and an excellent shooter. Originally on an mid-major recruiting trajectory, Buie spent the summer of 2018 playing for Adidas-based AAU program Mass Rivals and saw his recruitment (and game) take off. With Rivals, Buie shot 27-52 from beyond the arc and ranked as by far the most efficient offensive player on the Adidas circuit:
Buie followed up his strong July with a good senior season at Gould Academy in Maine, playing against high-level competition in one of the best prep leagues in the country, during which he was named to the all-NEPSAC AA team. CBS Sports CBB insider Jon Rothstein recently visited practice and projected Buie as the starting point guard, and as of now I tend to agree with that assessment.
Pat Spencer: The final piece of the point guard equation is Spencer, a true x-factor given he hasn’t played a competitive basketball game in four years. The lacrosse star’s one-year hoops experiment needed a home, and given the Wildcats’ multitude of open scholarships and point guard questions, Northwestern was a logical destination. Spencer is an elite athlete without a doubt and is reportedly a very good passer. Still, there is a level of skill refinement necessary for the college game. I’m confident Spencer will be a quick learner, but I plan to keep my expectations modest and hope to be pleasantly surprised.
AJ Turner: The elder statesman of the roster, Turner is somewhat of a polarizing player for me. At times, he flashed the ability to create a shot, something that this team desperately needed. At others, he phased out of games, turned it over, and didn’t shoot the ball well. His strong close to the 2018-19 season gives cause for optimism– he averaged 14 points and close to 3 assists per game while taking care of the ball and shooting efficiently. Turner could start or be a 6th man for this team, but in a team with lots of questions there’s little doubt he’ll at least be a key rotation player.
Anthony Gaines: Gaines is a limited offensive player, lacking a refined handle or consistent jump shot to be more than a tertiary offensive option. However, he’s a useful glue guy, capable of defending multiple positions, rebounding, and making hustle plays. Even without major steps forward in his offensive game, he’s a valuable piece. The big question is how healthy and in-shape he’ll be come November as he recovers from a stress fracture this summer.
Miller Kopp: It was an uneven freshman campaign for the highly-touted Kopp, demonstrating an ability to go get his own shot and a pure outside stroke (despite being somewhat streaky). Still, he struggled defensively and clearly needed to shed a little “baby fat” to gain a step on Big Ten defenders. Collins is a big believer in Kopp as a long-term foundational piece for this program, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Kopp winds up being the leading scorer on this team. The question is how efficiently he can score those points.
Chase Audige: As of now, Audige is expected to have to sit out the 2019-20 season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules after transferring in from William & Mary. However, he will reportedly seek a waiver for immediate eligibility on the grounds that his coach at W&M was fired this offseason. To me, it seems unlikely that the waiver is granted given the NCAA’s past reluctance to open the floodgates on players whose coach was fired, but Audige would be a nice piece to add to the mix. He averaged close to 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists per game as a freshman in the CAA and shot 37% from 3.
Pete Nance: Once the highest-rated recruit in Northwestern history, Nance didn’t live up to the lofty expectations as a freshman. At times he looked lost on the floor, overmatched by the physicality of Big Ten play while struggling to get going with his jumper. A midseason bout with Mono certainly didn’t help matters. Rothstein reported that Nance has gained 25 pounds, adding much-needed strength to go with his skilled perimeter game. His upside is immense– a true NBA talent if he can put it all together. What are reasonable expectations for Nance as a sophomore? I’d say 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists would be around the numbers I’m looking for.
Robbie Beran: Nance is no longer the highest-rated recruit in program history because of Beran, the Richmond, VA import who chose Northwestern over the likes of Louisville, Maryland, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech. Beran, like Nance, has elite upside as a multipositional player who can shoot the 3, defend multiple positions, and attack off the bounce. Also like Nance, Beran is very skinny, and adjusting to Big Ten athletes could be a struggle. His tape reminds of former Wisconsin star Sam Dekker, but his best basketball may be yet to come as he continues to grow into his lanky 6-9 frame.
Ryan Young: Young, the forgotten man in the Wildcats’ 2018 recruiting class, should have the chance for significant minutes after redshirting as a freshman. Young used that redshirt year to work on his body, getting stronger while ditching some fat from his frame. As a senior in high school, he averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds, and close to 3 assists per game. He’s not explosive vertically and likely won’t be a guy that Collins features much in the offense, but seems capable of doing the dirty work– screening, rebounding, and finishing around the rim.
Jared Jones: A one-time Auburn commit who chose Northwestern over a slew of high-major offers, Jones comes in with intriguing upside at the center position. Jones played for the best high school team in the country last season at McEachern HS in Georgia, playing alongside a star-studded group that featured top-50 recruit Isaac Okoro (Auburn) and 2020 5-star Sharife Cooper. Playing a national schedule with and against other elite players should ease the adjustment process for Jones to college basketball. There is some Dererk Pardon in his game, and it should be an interesting competition between Young and Jones for the starting spot. Also interesting will be whether Collins elects to give a beefed-up Nance opportunities at the 5 as well.
3 Burning Questions:
Can Boo Buie Take the Reigns at Point Guard?
A lot of this Northwestern season is about building towards the future. No one is questioning that. Northwestern has three potential building blocks on the roster in Beran, Nance, and Kopp, and a potential star in Joe Bamisile already locked up in the 2020 class. Where there’s still a long-term hole is point guard, and Buie has a chance to fill that hole. His dominant play on the AAU circuit last summer indicates his upside is far greater than his recruiting ranking. Five of the top 11 picks in the 2019 NBA Draft weren’t top-100 recruits, and three of those five weren’t top-200. Will Buie be an NBA player? Probably not. Can he be the long-term answer at point guard in Evanston? I believe he can. Giving him the keys to the offense early and allowing him to learn on the job would be prudent for Chris Collins as he feels out what he has to work with.
Will Nance, Kopp Take Steps Forward As Sophomores?
I just referred to Nance and Kopp as “potential building blocks”. This season will likely determine the answer whether they are guys you can build around. Nance getting stronger and refining his all-around game should open up all facets of his game as one of the most versatile players in the Big Ten, while Kopp’s smooth stroke and scoring mentality are positives to watch. These two guys playing well this season should make any Northwestern fan optimistic for the future, while both struggling likely means a longer-term rebuild entering the 2020-21 season.
How Does Chris Collins Instill the Culture He’s Looking For With A Young Roster?
Bench dancing by Charlie Hall and Barret Benson aside, it just didn’t seem like Northwestern had fun last season. You could see the weight of an extended losing streak and a roster failing to meet expectations continue to grow as the season wore on, and that manifested itself in March with the early departures of Aaron Falzon (Quinnipiac), Jordan Ash (Wright State), and perhaps most surprisingly, Barret Benson (SIU). In yet another season that will likely feature more losses than wins (at least in Big Ten play), can Collins use this season as a stepping stone to further success? Furthermore, can Collins implement a style of play that is exciting for fans and for future recruits?
In the non-conference, we know seven of the 11 games on tap for the ‘Cats.
- Home vs Providence (Gavitt Games)
- AT Boston College (ACC/B1G Challenge)
- AT DePaul
- vs Bradley in Fort Myers, FL (Fort Myers Tip-Off)
- vs Pitt/Kansas State in Fort Myers, FL (Fort Myers Tip-Off)
- Home vs Norfolk State (campus site game of Fort Myers Tip-Off)
- Home vs Arkansas-Pine Bluff/Radford/Monmouth (campus site game of Fort Myers Tip-Off)
To fill out the remainder of the schedule, I’d expect Northwestern to schedule mostly “buy” games, in which they pay a mid-major school to come play them at Welsh-Ryan Arena. It wouldn’t surprise me if they entered into a home-and-home series with a high-major program for one of the remaining games given that DePaul is the only long-term series on the docket, but for the most part, expect the rest of of this schedule to be tune-up games against lower-level competition. With games against a minimum of four high-major teams and an additional game against a strong Bradley club, combined with a 20-game conference schedule, it doesn’t make sense to schedule too many more tests with such a young roster.
Anything but a bottom-3 Big Ten finish would be a surprise, quite frankly. Still, that doesn’t mean that this season can’t be a success. If Buie, Beran, Kopp, and Nance look good, the future is very bright, and with a number of Big Ten teams retooling, maybe the ‘Cats surprise and jump up a few spots. That young nucleus struggling could spell disaster for the Collins era in Evanston.