Three Up, Three Down: Who are the real Northwestern Wildcats?

By Ben Moskow

As Boo Buie released a contested three-pointer with a minute to go in a tie game against a ranked Ohio State team on Dec. 26, I found myself thinking, “There’s just no way this goes in. This isn’t who this team is.”

The shot dropped. Nothing but net. 71-68, Wildcats.

It was the deciding basket in a win that capped off one of the best weeks in recent history for Northwestern men’s basketball. The ‘Cats had won their first three conference games for the first time since 1968, including their first win against a top-five team since 1979. When it was all said and done, the Wildcats sat at No. 19 in the AP Poll, ranked for the first time since their 2017 tournament run.

Giddy journalists flooded Twitter. Northwestern was nationally ranked in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball. After the win over OSU, the Wildcats were one of just three remaining Big Ten teams without a conference loss. The team had already equaled its conference win total from the previous season, where they went 3-17.

Even with this early success, notorious basketball website KenPom painted a quick fall back to Earth for the remainder of the season, projecting Northwestern as underdogs in its next fifteen games.

So far, the algorithm has been spot-on. The Wildcats have dropped their last three games, each in more crushing fashion than the last. While the ‘Cats kept it close for the majority of the Iowa game, they were absolutely throttled by Michigan. And then came the Illinois game.

One thing that stood out in Northwestern’s conference winning streak was its ability to close out games, which has been Chris Collins’ Achilles heel throughout his coaching tenure. His squads have a well-documented history of losing late leads, so gritty wins against tough competition felt like a breath of fresh air.

This second-half collapse against Illinois, though, put nearly every other to shame.

Illinois outscored Northwestern by 40 points in the last 20 minutes at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The ‘Cats shot just 2-of-24 from the field and defensively allowed the Illini to shoot nearly 60%. Buie, who dropped 30 points against Michgan State, didn’t record a single point all game. Pete Nance, who kept the ‘Cats in the game against Iowa a week ago, shot just 3-of-12 from the field. Collins’ confident assertions of the growth and maturity of his players – and his success in player development by extension – looked like they were premature.

Collins simply cannot rely on the “young team” crutch anymore. Arguably his two best players in Nance and Miller Kopp have two full seasons of Big Ten under their belts. Even second-year players Buie, Robbie Beran and Ryan Young have ample experience running with the big dogs from last season.

All three of the Wildcats’ recent losses came against top quality ranked opponents, but such is life in the Big Ten. As KenPom forecasts, their schedule does not let up the rest of the way.

Staff writers from The Athletic and CBS Sports still hold out hope for the program, placing the Wildcats in the NCAA tournament in recent projections. Experts say, though, that Northwestern will likely need to at least go 10-10 in Big Ten play for this to be a possibility. That means seven more Big Ten wins.

Maybe this is too early to go into panic mode. But after nearly a week to reflect on the Illinois loss, this Northwestern team needs to go into tonight’s rematch with Ohio State hungry, knowing that they still have a lot to prove.

Because blowing another lead of the degree they did last week is not an option.