By Margaret Fleming
Northwestern’s men’s basketball didn’t have an awesome season. Its overall record was 8-23 with three conference wins, finishing second to last in the Big Ten. Unlike most of those teams, it finished its season before the cancellation of the tournament, with a 74-57 loss to Minnesota. Returning almost every key player–the loss of grad transfer Pat Spencer will be tough, but Boo Buie will nicely become the primary PG–the ‘Cats have some key figures that make this program promising for next season. Let’s take a look back at 2019-20 and some key takeaways from the year.
1) They can get a lead. They’re not great at holding it.
Quite possibly the story of Northwestern basketball this season was getting a lead and losing it. Take the home matchup against No. 17 Maryland in January. It was Buie’s first game back from injury, and the ‘Cats started with a 10-0 run. Northwestern led by 14 at half, but lost the game by 11. There was also the February home loss to Purdue, where a 10-point lead dissolved into a 3-point loss. On the bright side, the ‘Cats can go on runs and score well. But that’s half the battle, and giving up large leads is a major issue. Chris Collins would chalk it up to the guys’ youth… more on that later.
2) Big upsets aren’t their style, but they can happen.
Let’s look all the way back to November for this one. Remember Providence? That’s a good team–it beat No. 10 Seton Hall, No. 12 Villanova and No. 19 Marquette this year. The Wildcats weren’t supposed to win that game, and despite the Friars’ 18-5 run in the second half, Northwestern won by nine. And it’s hard to talk about this season without breaking down the huge upset in March over No. 20 Penn State on Senior Day. It was Northwestern’s first victory against a ranked opponent since early February 2018. At one point the score was 15-2, then later tied at 34 at the half. This second half looked a little different than most games, with Northwestern going on a 19-4 scoring run. The 80-69 win was unexpected and proves the Wildcats can surprise anybody. Wins are wins, however they come.
3) Miller Kopp can carry this team on his back.
This kid is elite. He led the team in almost every category: scoring, 3FG, made FG, FT% and minutes. His 3-point percentage was one of the highest in the Big Ten, and he had six 20-point games. One reason Northwestern lost so badly in the Big Ten Tournament to Minnesota was Kopp’s eight point performance with no three pointers; if Kopp had an off day, the team had an off day. The ‘Cats went 2-1 in conference play when he scored 20 or more but 1-16 when he didn’t. If Kopp can put up big numbers more consistently, Northwestern might have a shot next year.
4) Ryan Young is an athlete.
After redshirting his true freshman season, Ryan Young’s contributions were big for the program. He averaged almost 26 minutes after starting every game, and had the highest field goal percentage on the team at 53.5%. With nine points and six rebounds per game (highest on the team), he placed among the best of this year’s Big Ten rookies. While Pete Nance struggled throughout the season, dropping out of the starting lineup, and Robbie Beran never rose to stardom, Young was the yearlong consistent force down low for the Wildcats. With three more years of eligibility, you can expect continued development and the same competitive fight from Young The Giant moving into his second season of Big Ten play.
5) The team is still young.
This might be Chris Collins’ biggest justification for a lackluster season. Though overused and often joked about, it is true–these guys are all young. There was some senior leadership in Tino Malnati and AJ Turner, but the consistent starting five and rotation players were in their first or second years in the Big Ten. Compare that to other programs in the conference, with either NBA-bound first-years or seasoned veterans (or both), and Northwestern doesn’t stand a chance. Still, there’s a lot of potential in these young players, and the team has all the pieces for a more successful run next season. Plus, they’re adding new threats like big man Matt Nicholson and three-star guard Ty Berry.
In a normal offseason, one would expect these guys to come back physically stronger and closer as a team. The current state of athletics will make it hard to do both. This past season wasn’t Northwestern’s best, but there’s a lot to learn from this year, and a lot of time to watch tape for Chris Collins and his squad.