It’s been a long couple years for Northwestern fans after the euphoric high of being within an inexplicable blown goal-tending call from knocking off one-seeded Gonzaga on their way to the Sweet Sixteen. It seems like that blown call placed the metaphorical monkey right back onto the shoulders of this program.
Since then, they have followed up the NCAA Tournament berth with an incredibly disappointing 2017-18 season, despite returning their five leading scorers from the previous season. Then, to make matters worse, the Wildcats debuted their brand new, state-of-the-art arena finishing last in the Big Ten.
Coming into the 2019-20 season, Chris Collins was hoping that the extensive roster turnover this past offseason could kickstart a new beginning. Losing leading scorers and team captains, Vic Law Jr. and Dererk Pardon, would certainly hurt. However, with their departures to graduation - along with Ryan Taylor - and the transfers of Barrett Benson, Jordan Ash, and Aaron Falzon, Collins was surely hoping that some fresh faces could mean a fresh start.
Any hopes of an under-the-radar, successful season may have gone down the drain with the 10-point loss to Merrimack on Friday night. This is the same Merrimack team that is in its first season in Division 1 and the same team that lost to Maine by 20 two days prior.
This wasn’t just a fluke last-second shot to shock the Wildcats, however. This was a Merrimack team that outright won the game, leading the game at half and continuing to lead until the final whistle. Collins did have some encouraging developments despite the embarrassing final score. Sophomore forward, and former top 100 recruit, Pete Nance showed that he may be taking a step forward as a scorer after struggling to find his role while dealing with mono last year. He put up 19 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 47% from the floor. Fellow sophomore forward, Miller Kopp, also showed some offensive flashes, scoring 11 including 6-6 from the free throw line.
The most intriguing story for this team going into the season is what they are going to get out of their grad transfer, Pat Spencer. Spencer is widely considered the best lacrosse player of his generation, winning the Tewaaraton Award (best player in the nation) last year and being selected 1st overall in the Premier Lacrosse League Draft this past April.
Despite these professional opportunities, he decided to give basketball a shot with his last year of NCAA eligibility. He has tremendous athleticism - he had three dunks in Northwestern’s exhibition game - and great basketball IQ despite not playing the sport competitively in five years. His spacial awareness has seamlessly translated from the lacrosse field to the court.
However, the one trait that stood out during the opener was his fearlessness. It’s obvious that he is the best athlete on any surface he’s ever played on and he knows it. He has the indescribable, you know it when you see it, “dude” trait. He had a rough shooting night (4-12 FG), however, when Northwestern was looking for a bucket, it was Spencer who wasn’t afraid of the moment. He’s never going to be an NBA Draft prospect, but he’s someone that Big Ten fans will learn to love with his Midwest, blue-collar, hard hat and lunchpail attitude on the court.
Ultimately, this Northwestern team is going to be pretty bad just as expected. Their biggest games this season may well be the two games against Nebraska to decide who ends up in last place. However, this is an extremely young team with a lot of things to watch looking toward the future. The Wildcats will graduate only two seniors this coming spring and Anthony Gaines will be the only senior on the roster next year.
In other words, don’t expect much from Chris Collins’s squad this year. However, the frontcourt depth is impressive for the Wildcats moving forward with Nance, Kopp, and freshmen Robbie Beran, Jared Jones, and Ryan Young. In the backcourt, freshman Boo Buie has showed some playmaking ability and sophomore Ryan Greer will always have a spot as a defensive-minded point guard.
Long story short, Wildcats fans may not be happy with the final score of a lot of games this season. However, their mindset moving forward this season will be losing the battle to win the war. Every beating they take this year will provide these youngsters more experience when they’re upperclassmen.
This group reminds me a lot of the 2014 class that brought in Vic Law Jr., Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, and Gavin Skelly - the core of the 2017 NCAA Tournament team. This will be a year of development with some flashes of brilliance mixed in. Look forward to the future Wildcat fans, no matter how hard it may be this season.