Season Recap: Men’s Basketball
By John Riker
Overall Record: 15-16
Conference Record: 7-13
Leading Scorer: Pete Nance (14.6 ppg)
Leader in Assists: Boo Buie (4.3 apg)
Leading Rebounder: Pete Nance (6.5 rpg)
Last winter, Northwestern men’s basketball had its best season since its 2016-17 run to March Madness, though four straight seasons with six or fewer conference wins set a low bar. Look past the slight improvement, and 2021-2022 sure feels like a letdown.
Maybe it’s the aftertaste of the 112-76 blowout loss to Iowa that ended the Wildcats’ season. Or the fact that the program’s best and most experienced frontcourt players, Pete Nance and Ryan Young, opted to take their talents to the Duke-UNC rivalry rather than stick around in Evanston. Or maybe it’s just the accumulation of bad bounces, brutal finishes and stunted growth that made it a more than frustrating winter in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
While not exactly the hot conference start that saw Northwestern race into the top 20 of the AP poll in 2020-2021, the Wildcats started off their 2021-22 campaign promisingly. NU mostly took care of business in non-conference play before enjoying a statement win in its Big Ten opener at Maryland. The leader of an experienced Wildcat core, Nance showed he was a real force to be reckoned with, scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 boards on the night. Junior guard Boo Buie also flashed his scoring ability, adding 16 points himself, and a trio of first-years showed promise in their first slices of game action. By the start of the conference slate, the ‘Cats stood at 8-2 with reason for optimism and an expectation of competitiveness.
Although a fourth straight season with a 10-game losing streak was mercifully avoided, the Big Ten beat up Northwestern from start to finish.
The ‘Cats stole their annual top-ten upset against Michigan State, but picked up the rest of their seven conference wins against the bottom feeders of the Big Ten and failed to close out pivotal, winnable games. A pair of four-game losing streaks bookended NU’s win over the Spartans in January, the most painful being a double-overtime home loss to the Maryland team the ‘Cats had defeated earlier in the season.
In February, coach Chris Collins’ squad won its first three games to return its overall record above .500, with wins over Rutgers, Nebraska and an undermanned Indiana team. Then, a dose of reality hit once more with losses in five of the next six games to effectively fall out of March Madness contention.
Wins against Nebraska and Minnesota in the final weeks of the regular season set up a B1G tourney matchup against the Cornhuskers in Indianapolis, where the ‘Cats were considered the favorites. Buie and Nance combined for 30 points in a razor-thin 71-69 victory, giving Northwestern its first Big Ten tournament win since 2017. The next day, the Iowa Hawkeyes powered their way to a 64-31 halftime lead before finishing them off 112-76 and crushing all hopes of a Wildcat postseason run.
A 7-13 record in conference play wasn’t terrible, but what stings for Northwestern fans is how close the team came to an admirable .500 record and, possibly, a March Madness return.
A blown two-point lead with under three minutes left in regulation against Penn State on Jan 5. The double-overtime loss to Maryland in Welsh-Ryan Arena. Another nail biter against Michigan that the ‘Cats couldn’t close out. Another lead against the Nittany Lions with under seven minutes left that evaporated in a 14-2 Penn State run. A shocking 77-60 blowout to Minnesota, a team that entered the game as one of the Big Ten’s worst teams with only three conference wins.
Finishing out games in the Big Ten is difficult, but pick a couple of those games to turn in the Wildcats’ favor and the tenor of the season — and the outlook for next season — would be significantly different.
To the dismay of some Northwestern fans, athletic director Derrick Gragg retained Collins for the 2022-23 season, citing his trust in Collins to make the changes needed to become competitive once again. But aside from the coaching ranks, the Cats will look a lot different this upcoming year. Nance, Young and first year Casey Simmons all left for greener pastures, and Rowan Brumbaugh, the program’s highest-ranked recruit ever, backed out and chose to commit to Texas instead. Longtime administrator Kevin White also left for a position with Clemson football. Both on and off the court, NU has a lot of work to do.
The Cats have some familiar faces. Buie, one of two Wildcats to average over 10 points per game, returns in the backcourt alongside senior guard Chase Audige. Senior Robbie Beran brings rebounding ability and experience, while sophomore guard Julian Roper shows the most potential to be the Wildcats’ long-term star player.
After their season-ending loss to Iowa, the ‘Cats looked to take the next step and contend. But before they can make progress, they’ll first have to recover from the losses this offseason and regroup. Then, the time will come to take on the Big Ten gauntlet once again.