I wouldn’t blame any reader for not watching a Northwestern game that doesn’t involve their team of choice. The Wildcats have won only once in conference which slots them into last place in the league. Chris Collins has really struggled to build off of their first Tournament appearance three seasons ago despite bringing in a lot of talent on paper. Three of the four highest-rated recruits in Northwestern program history, according to 247Sports, are underclassmen on the roster right now.
The wings of the future are pretty much solidified for the Wildcats in Nance, Beran, and Kopp, who are all versatile enough to play whatever style Collins wants to deploy. Collins has also done a good job finding diamond-in-the-rough types in freshman Jared Jones and redshirt-freshman Ryan Young. Young has started every game and has proven that he can withstand the grind of a Big Ten season. Jones has been finding a groove lately as he acclimates to the college game, showing confidence in his shot-making ability. Freshman point guard, Boo Buie, has also taken a huge step forward in conference play despite not always being the most efficient shooter.
The Wildcats are young, no doubt about it. Of their nine active scholarship players, only AJ Turner has more than two seasons of college basketball experience. Chris Collins seems to mention the youth ad nauseam every time his team blows a second half lead (i.e., Rutgers, Purdue, Ohio State, Maryland, Illinois, etc.). But when does the youth excuse become nullified? The Wildcats have blown more second half leads than the Big Ten has Tournament teams. They should have enough experience to realize that allowing Rutgers to end regulation on a 16-4 run is a recipe to lose in overtime. Or that scoring a grand total of 2 points in the final five minutes against Purdue at home isn’t going to get the job done. At some point, youth subsides and general inability emerges.
What Wildcat fans are experiencing isn’t new. The program really struggled when the previous wave of youth arrived in Evanston with Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey, and Dererk Pardon. What that team had, though, was Drew Crawford who was that stabilizing veteran presence to exemplify what it took to succeed in the Big Ten, even though victories were infrequent. Pat Spencer knows what it takes to succeed in college lacrosse (not very helpful) and AJ Turner, while a decent player, has never experienced even an NIT. That leaves sophomore Miller Kopp as the go-to guy down the stretch and nobody can blame him for struggling in that role, being that he’s not getting too much help from the rest of the roster in crunch time.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Wildcat fans, however. As I mentioned before, this is easily the most talented team in program history in terms of potential. Kopp has already proven to be a really good Big Ten player, averaging 13.5 ppg including 41% from three. Boo Buie has provided a spark offensively like a “knock-off brand Carsen Edwards”. Ryan Young and Jared Jones have the skill and lateral quickness to play well, and will only improve with an offseason’s worth of weight training. Robbie Beran and Pete Nance are prototypical stretch-4s but, like Young and Jones, just need to get a lot stronger.
Northwestern has a lot to look forward to and we always knew it was going to be a fight for the bottom with them and Nebraska. It’s encouraging to see the Wildcats hang tight with a lot of teams this season, including potential Tournament teams. What’s not encouraging is the fact that they consistently find a way to lose. That’s a contagious trend for young teams, especially in major conferences. The last step in the maturation process is learning how to win. For Chris Collins’s sake, let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later. Otherwise, we might be looking at a 2020-21 roster that has perfected losing.