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2020-’21 Northwestern Wildcats Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Northwestern Wildcats and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2020-’21 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Tournament-Northwestern vs Minnesota Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-’21 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2020-’21 ‘season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local “insider” who covers said team.

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Oh, how time flies.

It seems like yesterday when Chris Collins was first taking over in Evanston. Bill Carmody was on his way out after more than a decade at the helm and Collins was hoping to put his stamp on the program. Fans were excited, Collins was landing players like Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law, and Northwestern was scaring the hell out of Big Ten powerhouses like Michigan and Wisconsin. He quickly led Northwestern out of the Big Ten’s basement into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. It was a run Wildcat fans will remember for years to come.

But the early successes under Collins are quickly fading.

As Collins prepares to enter his eighth year as head coach, things are no longer trending up. Unlike the early years when optimism was everywhere, expectations have regressed substantially. Northwestern is no longer a serious threat for the NCAA Tournament or considered a program on the rise. The Wildcats finished with a putrid 36-59 (.379) mark over the last three seasons and are now preparing to enter this season with even more question marks. The roster is inexperienced, the team lacks star power, and the Wildcats are substantially less talented than the teams that made history a few years ago.

And while we’e still a year or two away from any serious “hot seat” talk—thanks to Collins’ early successes with the Wildcats—, it’s hard to feel too optimistic about where things sit moving forward. Northwestern finished 74th or worse on KenPom in each of the last three seasons, and that includes a dreadful 132nd ranking last year. And with many of the same contributors, there’s no obvious way to reverse that trend this season. It’s going to take quite an effort from Collins and staff to have any chance of getting back on track.

But if we are trying to be optimistic, there are a few pieces to start with. Boo Buie and Anthony Gaines return in the backcourt after decent performances last season, Pete Nance looks like a player with All-Big Ten potential if things go right, and Ryan Young held up better than many expected last year as a freshman. The roster also returns a few young players like Robbie Beran and adds three new recruits, including top 150 prospect Ty Berry.

Either way, Northwestern enters this season in an interesting spot. It’s not a “make or break” year for Collins, but we’re starting to get there. If he’s going to get back on track in Evanston, it feels like it’s going to have to start now.

So, can he get it done? Let’s take a look.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse’s season preview post for the Northwestern Wildcats, make sure to check out the site’s podcast preview of the Wildcats, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Daniel Olinger of Inside NU breaking down Northwestern’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2019-’20 Season Performance

  • Record: 8-23 (3-17)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #132
  • NET Rating: #164
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A (Cancelled)

Northwestern wasn’t great last season and that should be pretty obvious from the statistics listed above. While the Wildcats had a decent start and put together a 5-4 record at one point, things went off the rails afterward. The team was never in the Big Ten picture and its postseason dream was dead by January as well. And when you’re playing roughly half your slate with nothing significant on the line, it’s hard to argue things went well.

And while some “lost” seasons can be credited to a tough slate, injuries, or unusual circumstances, that really wasn’t the case here. Yes, Northwestern played a tough schedule and probably would have won more games if the Big Ten hadn’t been so deep, but that alone doesn’t explain the struggles here. Northwestern blew games to Merrimack and Radford in the first two weeks of the season, Pittsburgh around Thanksgiving, and Hartford in December. Every one of those teams finished well outside the top 100 on KenPom, including two (Hartford and Merrimack) who finished well outside the top 200 and none play in the Big Ten. A good team doesn’t lose those games.

The lone saving grace for Northwestern was a nice finish to the season. The Wildcats won two of the team’s last three regular season games, including a huge upset against a top 25ish Penn State squad. If Northwestern does get things on track in the years ahead, those late wins will have to be cited as the start of the rise. The early season win over Providence was also a bright moment. Conversely, the 12-game skid amid the heart of Big Ten play will be something fans want to forget.

Individual statistical leaders were Miller Kopp, Pete Nance, Pat Spencer, and Ryan Young. Kopp led the team in minutes and points. Nance led the team in blocks. Spencer led the team in assists and steals. Young led the team in rebounds.

2. Offseason Exits

As one might expect for a team coming off an 8-23 season, Northwestern won’t be losing much this offseason. The Wildcats are losing just four players in Jared Jones, Tino Malnati, Pat Spencer, and AJ Turner. Two played starter minutes, one saw serious time as a reserve, and Malnati hardly played. None of these departures look insurmountable.

With all that said, the biggest departure here is Spencer. He finished second on the team in minutes and scoring and was third on the roster in rebounding. He was also the team’s most efficient passer (8th in the Big Ten in assist rate) and was more than capable of getting to the line when needed. Spencer only played one season with the Wildcats after transferring in from Loyola (MD), where he played lacrosse for three years. He had one of the more bizarre backstories in the Big Ten, but he ended up finishing with a pretty solid career.

The other notable departures are Jones and Turner. Both played significantly for the Wildcats last season. Turner averaged 24.4 minutes and Jones finished at 10.3 minutes per game. However, neither was an offensive force. Turner led the two with just 5.1 points per game and both finished with offensive ratings well below 100. However, Jones’ departure stings a little bit more because he was just a freshman last year. With another year or two under his belt, perhaps he could have become a more significant contributor. And the final departure was Malnati, who’s on court contributions were few and far between. He finished with 15 total minutes last season.

As noted above, none of these departures are too substantial to overcome. The majority of the team’s core pieces remain on the roster and a few of these players will likely be surpassed by their replacements.

3. New Additions

This season, the Wildcats will be adding two new recruits and one walk-on. The recruits are Ty Berry and Matthew Nicholson. According to 247Sports, both are three-star prospects. The site lists Berry as a combo guard and Nicholson as a center. Dominic Martinelli joins the team as a walk-on. He’s listed as a power forward.

None of the three newcomers look like instant impact additions. Berry is the highest rated of the group and is still well outside the top 100. But with that said, there are some things to excite Wildcat fans with the newcomers. To start, Berry arrives on campus with a decent pedigree and was probably a bit under scouted as is. He’s ranked 142nd nationally and comes out of Wichita. He is quite a play maker and should provide immediate help on the offensive side of the floor. And considering Northwestern finished 131st nationally in offensive rating last season, that should be welcome news.

The other two additions should also help provide some valuable depth upfront. Northwestern was horrendous on the boards last season and desperately needs some help inside the paint. Fortunately, Nicholson and Martinelli should help there. Nicholson is a bit raw, but arrives at 7-foot-0 and Martinelli should provide depth behind Nance as well. Even if the two can fill in for the lost minutes from Jones, that would be a welcome boost.

Chase Audige also deserves some mention here. He transferred in from William & Mary before last season, but had to sit out due to NCAA transfer rules. He will be eligible this time around and should be able to contribute significantly. He started in 21 games in his final season at William & Mary and averaged 9.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game.

All told, Northwestern is adding a class that should help provide some depth this season and could grow into much more down the road. This isn’t a group loaded with raw talent and top flight starters from day one, but if Berry and Nicholson can early some early playing time, it could mean big things down the line in Evanston.

4. Points of Optimism

Let’s be blunt about this: Northwestern wasn’t a great team last year. The Wildcats finished with an overall record well below .500 and the team ended up well outside the top 100 nationally on KenPom. Those struggles are patently clear from Northwestern’s horrid 3-19 finish to the season. And considering two of those wins came against an underwhelming Nebraska squad, that record looks even worse.

Given these significant struggles, optimism is somewhat scarce in Evanston right now. Fans aren’t expecting huge things from the team and reasonably so. It’s hard to believe in a turnaround after last season. However, there are some reasons to think things could improve. In particular, Northwestern welcomes back a talented wing group, could see substantial growth in the backcourt, and has a few players lined up for breakout years.

Any real optimism for Northwestern’s season has to start with the wing group. Miller Kopp and Pete Nance are back after productive 2019-’20 seasons and could both be set to take steps forward this time around. Kopp was one of the Big Ten’s best shooters and Nance has a diverse game that makes him a really intriguing prospect. If these two can get some help from the backcourt, there’s a lot of upside here. The team just didn’t get enough from the backcourt to allow players like Kopp and Nance to thrive last time around.

And speaking of the backcourt, it’s not unreasonable to think that part of the roster could improve substantially as well. Boo Buie is back after starting as a true freshman, Anthony Gaines should return to the lineup, Ryan Greer returns with more experience, and the team is adding Ty Berry to the roster as well. The backcourt won’t be loaded, but it’s hard to see it being as bad as it was last year either. This group should take significant steps forward and that’s huge news for the team, as it should pay dividends elsewhere as well. Perhaps it could help lead to breakout seasons for players like Kopp and Nance on the wing.

Northwestern will enter this season with underwhelming expectations. However, the team is in much better shape than last year and could do some real damage if a few players outperform expectations. Look for much of Northwestern’s success to ride with players like Gaines, Kopp, and Nance. If those three thrive, Northwestern could be a dangerous squad.

5. Points of Concern

As one might expect based on the team’s struggles last season, Northwestern will enter this fall with a variety of concerns. And while there are many we could address here, the most significant relate to the team’s backcourt, lack of elite contributors, and frontcourt depth. Northwestern can overcome these issues if things fall right, but it won’t be easy.

The team’s biggest challenge will come from its backcourt. The group was more than underwhelming last season, consistently failing to produce offensively and giving up too many opportunities elsewhere. Boo Buie finished with a rough 88.5 offensive rating, Pat Spencer was marginally higher at 96.4, and even Anthony Gaines barely cracked 100 at 100.2. And with most of the same players returning, it’s hard to see a clear path for improvement. Yes, Buie and Greer were young, but neither was great last year and a single offseason doesn’t guarantee improvement. And the team’s biggest newcomer (Berry), is far from a sure thing. While he has potential, it could take some time.

These issues are also complicated by the team’s lack of an unquestioned star. Whether fans want to admit it or not, success is often dictated by a team’s best player. If your top guy is better than your opponent’s top guy, it’s often enough to swing the game. And while Northwestern has a few players that could break out like Kopp and Nance, it hasn’t happened yet. Kopp is the team’s most productive offensive player, but he has his limitations and is a long way off from being an All-Big Ten first team type of player. The Wildcats desperately need someone to take that next step.

Additionally, Northwestern has to improve its perimeter scoring. The Wildcats were 279th nationally in three-point percentage and 234th in percentage of team points coming from outside the arc last season. And if Northwestern remains that poor from deep, it’s hard to imagine the Wildcats doing anything significant. Fans have to hope some of the newcomers can help there as Kopp was really the only player on the roster who shot well last season.

The final thing here is a bit generic, but it needs to be said. Northwestern enters this season without a ton of roster talent, at least according to the various recruiting services. Unlike in the early years with Collins, this isn’t a roster with a handful of players who received massive interest as high school prospects. There is no Vic Law or Bryant McIntosh. This is an eclectic group of players with little to no NBA potential.

And while the above might sound harsh, it’s reality in Evanston. The roster just isn’t great. And while most Wildcat fans don’t expect to have a roster like Duke or Kentucky on a regular basis, there’s a difference between what Northwestern had a few years ago and what it expects to have this season. And those roster deficits create a situation where the team likely needs one (if not more) players to massively outperform expectations to have a chance at achieving anything significant this season. And that’s a tough spot to see in. There’s hope, but it’s going to take quite an effort.

6. Top Player

Kopp was Northwestern’s best player last season and there’s little reason to think that will differ this time around. He will be entering his junior year and most expect him to make modest improvement on last year’s numbers. Here’s what I wrote about Kopp in our top 25 player countdown.

There’s little debating Kopp’s best skill is his ability to hit shots from long range. He hit 39.6 percent of his attempts from three-point range last season and 39.8 percent during conference play, which ranked 9th in the league. Kopp also led the Big Ten in free throw percentage last season, hitting a ridiculously hit 88.1 percent of attempts.

Along with his elite shooting pedigree, Kopp has also done a nice job of avoiding mistakes when he has the ball in his hands. He avoids fouls and had one of the lowest turnover rates in the Big Ten, finishing 13th in the league. Those are nice skills to have for a player who finished with a 23.8 usage rate.

. . .

Expect Kopp to pick up where he left off last season. He should be a consistent contributor on an upstart Wildcat squad. He should be a huge threat from deep and someone that can stretch a defense. He will also likely be a liability defensively and underwhelming on the boards. However, if he can elevate those skills and become a better ball handler, he might have a shot at serious All-Big Ten status.

The biggest question for Kopp’s production will be how his surrounding cast performs. If Northwestern’s backcourt can take a step forward and feed Kopp the ball, there’s a chance he could put up some special numbers. That will be a big question for him and the team.

Other wildcards to consider here are Audige, Anthony Gaines, and Nance. Audige arrives as a transfer from William & Mary and hopes to hit the ground running. Meanwhile, Gaines is coming off an injury and Nance is hoping to finally put it all together this season. All three have potential. However, it’s hard to see any of them putting together enough to outperform Kopp this season.

7. 2020-’21 Schedule Breakdown

  • TBA - Unknown
  • 12/9 - Pittsburgh
  • TBA - Unknown
  • TBA - Illinois
  • TBA - at Illinois

Normally, I would use this space to dive into Northwestern’s schedule, the biggest games on the slate this year, and some expectations for how the team should perform. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the erratic scheduling changes, we don’t know much about the schedule at the moment. In fact, the only game officially scheduled right now is the team’s home game against Pittsburgh in early December as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. This makes it pretty hard to give many thoughts on the slate.

However, we do have some general ideas on how things might look this season. Northwestern will have a reduced non-conference slate and we know the team will get Illinois twice during league play. We also know the arenas will almost certainly have reduced capacity, if anyone is able to attend at all. That’s going to make for a bizarre experience in Big Ten play, which has led the nation for years in fan attendance. Expect road games against teams like Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin to be much easier this time around.

As for Northwestern, a lot will depend on taking care of business at home and holding its own against beatable opponents. It will be tough sledding in a stacked Big Ten.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Daniel ‘Boo’ Buie (So.) - 60%
  • SG: Anthony Gaines (Sr.) - 80%
  • SF: Miller Kopp (Jr.) - 95%
  • PF: Pete Nance (Jr.) - 75%
  • C: Ryan Young (Rs. So.) - 85%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Despite an underwhelming 2019-’20 season, Northwestern enters this season with a pretty solidified lineup. The team returns essentially its entire starting lineup from last season, including its top two players in total win shares. The big questions will be about how the group fits together this year and whether any of the team’s newcomers and returning depth options can push some of the starters.

In the backcourt, Buie returns after starting 11 games as a freshman last season. He struggled with consistency, but showed promise and finished with one of the best assist rates in Big Ten play. And without any proven options behind him, it seems likely Buie will get the benefit of the doubt out of the gate. Expect junior Ryan Greer and true freshman Ty Berry to split the backup minutes behind Buie. And if Berry hits the ground running, there’s a chance he could push Buie into a reserve role. The best case scenario for Wildcat fans is an improvement from Buie and some early contributions from Berry.

Things should be really intriguing alongside Buie. Gaines returns from injury and the team also adds a transfer guard in Chase Audige from William & Mary. If there are any potential breakout players this season, it could very well be these two. Gaines had nice numbers before going out with injury and Audige was an ace from three-point range in his lone season in Williamsburg. Both are going to play significantly and they both should be pretty solid upgrades from what Northwestern was putting on the floor at the two spot last season.

But unlike the backcourt, things are pretty easy to project on the wing. Kopp is back after a solid 2019-’20 campaign and Nance returns alongside him. Nance has struggled with consistency, but he remains one of Northwestern’s best prospects and breakout hopes as he has a unique combination of athleticism, length, and shooting. Whether Nance can ever tap into his long-term potential remains to be seen. However, there’s little debating he and Kopp will lock down the three and four spots this season.

The depth on the wing will come largely from Audige and Robbie Beran. I expect Audige will grab some minutes at the three when Kopp hits the bench and Beran will take most of everything else. Beran had a relatively decent freshman season last year, working the defensive boards and hitting 40 percent from deep on limited attempts. However, he struggled with efficiency, routinely delivering underwhelming shooting performances. Fans will hope he can take a moderate step forward. Expect Beran to play starter level minutes, even if he plays off the bench.

Upfront, Ryan Young is going to dominate playing time at the five. He led things there last season and the team’s top reserve big man (Jared Jones) is now gone with unclear options behind him. Matthew Nicholson arrives as a relatively unheralded freshman and appears to be the most likely reserve candidate. Unfortunately, Northwestern doesn’t have much behind those two. Should either of those two go down or get in foul trouble, you’re likely looking at Nance or a walk-on getting playing time. Not a great situation.

Give Northwestern’s preseason expectations and results last season, it’s actually surprising how well this lineup fits together this year. However, the backcourt still looks questionable and the team’s frontcourt depth is virtually nonexistent. But if things come together right, Northwestern could be a dangerous squad.

9. Outside Perspective From Inside NU’s Daniel Olinger

“Northwestern brings back a lot of familiar faces, as the only rotation players from last season that won’t be back are seniors Pat Spencer and AJ Turner, and now sophomore Jared Jones who transferred to Middle Tennessee State. The 2020-21 ‘Cats have zero seniors but are laden with juniors in always-has-potential Pete Nance, sharpshooter Miller Kopp and defensive ace Anthony Gaines, who redshirted last year after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. The ‘Cats have size with those three juniors and sophomore bigs Ryan Young and Robbie Beran, and given Chris Collins’ track record of producing at least competent defensive teams, Northwestern can be trusted on that end.

The offense, specifically in terms of who handles the creation load, is the big question. They play a very slow, grind-it-out style of play, finishing 321st out of 353 D-I teams in points per game last year, and settling for mid-range shots short of the rim as if they got bonus points for trying floaters (spoiler: you don’t). They finished dead last in the conference in total dunks, with their 26 finishing far behind Nebraska’s 41, according to BartTorvik. The big key is whether Boo Buie can truly take a step up and become the point guard Northwestern has desperately needed since the departure of Bryant McIntosh. Buie flashed creative handle and pull-up three point shooting ability, but also played an inefficient style, missed passes and got torched by bigger, faster guards. In a recent media availability, Collins indicated that Buie is likely going to start the year at point guard and that he has impressed in practice as he looks to be more efficient. Collins also sang praises for freshman guard Ty Berry, who has stood out in practice due to his elite shooting acumen. Overall, Northwestern should be better and hopefully will hold on to those leads that they constantly blew last season, but should we get a standard 20-game conference schedule soon, I’d expect the ‘Cats to finish somewhere between 5-15 and 8-12 in Big Ten play.” - Daniel Olinger.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Last season was a tough one for Wildcat fans. Northwestern finished with an 8-23 record and was largely as bad as the record indicated. The team’s backcourt was a mess, it consistently lost close games, and the Wildcats showed minimal growth. It left many fans wondering about the future of things with Collins at the helm.

And with largely the same roster returning, it’s hard to believe things will be much different this time around. Most of the starting lineup will be the same and many of the same issues will persist. The addition of players like Audige and Berry should help things. However, it’s going to take some significant growth from key returners like Beran, Nance, and Young for the team to have any real hope of moving up the Big Ten standings.

We’ll see how things turn out, but expect more of the same from Evanston. The hope will be some improvement from the roster to get things in position for a productive 2021-’22 season. And who knows, perhaps someone can surprise and start the rebuild.

Big Ten Prediction: 13th Place