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2021-’22 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 2021-’22 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-’22 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-’22 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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It’s hard to believe, but this marks the ninth season for Chris Collins at Northwestern. And what a tenure it’s been. While things started out rough, Collins broke the ceiling for Wildcat basketball, getting the program to its first NCAA Tournament in 2017 thanks to key players like Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law. It was an incredible run few will forget.

Unfortunately, those memories are now fading.

Since making the NCAA Tournament in 2017, Northwestern has struggled for consistency, finishing each of the last four seasons with a losing record and a KenPom ranking outside the top 70, including a dreadful ranking of 132nd during the 2019-’20 season. A loaded Big Ten has made things tough on Collins and his staff, but Northwestern has undeniably regressed. Virtually every part of the roster is worse than it was in 2017.

This makes this season a key one for Collins. Nobody expects Northwestern to be a perennial Big Ten title contender, but we’re not talking about that here. Northwestern hasn’t posted a winning record in four years and the team wasn’t even close to hitting .500 in two of those years. Collins desperately needs to reverse that trend. Wildcat fans will accept slim years here and there with the program’s limitations, but that won’t last forever. We’re starting to approach the point where things get uncomfortable.

So, can Collins reverse the trend? Let’s take a look.

1. 2020-’21 Season Performance

  • Record: 9-15 (6-13)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #79
  • NET Rating: #96
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Last season was a disappointing one in Evanston. While expectations entering the year weren’t particularly high and the team had some early success, Northwestern didn’t even make it to New Year’s before things started tanking. The team lost 13 straight in Big Ten play between December 26th and February 24th, including a few gut punches. And even if there were other highlights and some success to close the season, there’s simply no recovering from a stretch of 13 straight losses.

The team’s biggest issue was its underwhelming and inconsistent offensive production. The defense was there, but Northwestern finished 132nd in offensive productivity and was horrendous in a number of related categories, including 129th in three-point percentage, 335th in offensive rebounding rate, and 170th in block rate. The team’s perimeter game was a mess and its interior game was even rougher. It wasn’t a good mix.

Of course, in interests of fairness, we should mention Northwestern’s schedule last season. The Wildcats were dealt a great disservice by the shortened slate and an unusually deep Big Ten. Northwestern virtually had no chance of surviving its slate. For example, just look at that 13-game losing streak. Losing 13 games is always a rough look, but it doesn’t look quite as bad when you consider every opponent was ranked in KenPom’s top 50 and nine were in the top 25. Good teams would have struggled against that. And that’s just one stretch in one of the nation’s toughest slates.

Highlights of the season included the three wins to open Big Ten play over Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State and the upset win over Maryland late in the year. Low points included a rough loss to Pittsburgh in non-conference play, getting swept by Illinois and Rutgers, and the loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament.

Individual statistical leaders were Chase Audige, Boo Buie, Miller Kopp, and Pete Nance. Audige led the team in steals and points. Buie led the team in assists. Kopp led the team in minutes. Nance led the team in rebounds, blocks, and total win shares.

2. Offseason Exits

Northwestern got off relatively light with player departures this offseason. The program only lost four players in Anthony Gaines, Miller Kopp, Dom Martinelli, and Eric Zalewski and only Gaines and Kopp were real contributors. That’s not all that bad in today’s world of college basketball, where transfers and early departures dominate the headlines.

The most significant departure of the group is Kopp. He led the team in minutes last season and was one of the more frequently used players on the roster. Kopp was also a seasoned veteran and a pretty consistent player, avoiding fouls, converting from the free throw line, and cleaning up the boards when needed. He opted to transfer to Indiana this offseason, so Wildcat fans will likely get to see him a few times this year.

Gaines was also a contributor for the Wildcats last season. He started a few games and averaged 20.8 minutes, 3.9 points, and 4.3 rebounds per game last season. As can be seen from those numbers, though, Gaines should be replaceable. Likewise, Martinelli and Zalewski combined for 19 total minutes last season. None of these three departures should turn many heads this offseason.

3. New Additions

This season, the Wildcats will be adding three new recruits and one transfer. The recruits are Brooks Barnhizer, Julian Roper, and Casey Simmons. Barnhizer and Roper are rated as three-star prospects and Simmons is a four-star. According to 247Sports, Roper and Simmons are shooting guards and Barnhizer is a small forward.

The recruit attracting the most attention is certainly Simmons. He’s the highest rated of the group and fell just outside the top 100 at No. 101 in 247Sports’ ratings for the 2021 class. He is listed at 6-foot-5 and 170 pounds and should be able to contribute early for Collins and his staff. At the time of his commitment, he was the second-highest rated recruit in Northwestern’s history behind Pete Nance.

The most noteworthy thing about the incoming class is how all three fit into Northwestern’s roster. The Wildcats’ big departures came at the two and three spots and all three new recruits play there. That should give all three an early path to playing time. Don’t be surprised if we see a few of them get real time.

The transfer is Elyjah Williams. He is a graduate transfer from Fairleigh Dickinson and is listed at 6-foot-7 and 22 pounds. He was one of the more productive players for the Knights over the last few years and averaged 18.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game last season. This will be a big step up in competition, but Williams should get rotational minutes at the four and five spots.

4. Points of Optimism

The last few years haven’t been pretty in Evanston. The team has struggled to find consistency and hasn’t had a winning record since 2017. However, there are some real reasons for optimism about the Wildcats this season. The schedule appears more manageable, the roster is trending up, and the new additions are better than some might believe. If all goes well, Northwestern could contend for the postseason.

Let’s start with the schedule. Northwestern went 9-15 last season, but did so against the nation’s toughest slate. The Wildcats played 21 of the team’s 24 games against opponents ranked 109th or better on KenPom, including 20 games against teams in the top 100, 16 games against the top 50, and 10 against top 25 teams. Calling that challenging is an understatement. This was an absolute gauntlet. I mean, look at this stretch in December and January per KenPom:

  • 12/26 - No. 11 Ohio State
  • 12/29 - at No. 7 Iowa
  • 1/3 - at No. 3 Michigan
  • 1/7 - No. 4 Illinois
  • 1/13 - No. 7 Iowa
  • 1/20 - at No. 14 Wisconsin

Six straight games against top 15 opponents, including three on the road. Even a top 10 team would be an underdog in many of those games. And that’s what Northwestern was dealing with last year. With an expanded non-conference slate and a more manageable Big Ten, things should get easier.

There are also some decent pieces on this roster, even if they don’t get national attention. Audige is a shot creator and a decent outside scorer, Buie has shown a lot of growth over the last two years, and Nance is a consistent player down low. Players like Ty Berry, Robbie Beran, and Ryan Young also still have room to grow.

The new additions also fit in well with what returns in Evanston. Simmons should be able to fill in for some of Kopp’s lost minutes and Williams is an experienced piece that should boost the team’s frontcourt depth. It’s also important to emphasize Simmons’ profile entering this season. He’s not a generic three-star prospect. He’s a legitimate four-star and fringe top 100 player. There’s a chance he’s just a special player. That alone would change this season. And that just goes along with the roster of growth going on for Collins.

5. Points of Concern

Well, any discussions of concerns for this year’s Northwestern squad have to start with the last four years. We’ve discussed this several times in the preview already, but the Wildcats have been a mess since making the NCAA Tournament in 2017. This is no longer a roster familiar with success. The coaches and fans might remember the days of MacIntosh and Law, but the current group of Wildcats haven’t achieved anything. And as Wildcat fans know well, getting over that hump isn’t easy. It will take quite an effort.

Additionally, even if Northwestern’s roster is improved, that also doesn’t mean it’s great. Guys like Audige, Buie, and Nance have shown themselves to be decent Big Ten players, but Northwestern once again enters the fall without a legitimate star. Maybe someone can elevate their game or Simmons can surprise early, but winning at a high level without a top-tier player is a major challenge. For perspective, Verbal Commits ranks Northwestern as a bottom half roster in the Big Ten.

It’s also important to recognize some of the structural issues with Northwestern’s roster as well. The team lacks depth at the point and the frontcourt. Fans are certainly hoping Ryan Greer emerges behind Buie and some of the new additions can help with frontcourt depth. However, these are hardly “sure” things for the Wildcats. And having holes like this makes the lack of a star even more troublesome. Special players can cover up issues. Unfortunately, Northwestern might have both issues this season.

6. Top Player

Having multiple players in contention for a team’s “top player” can be encouraging. For example, Illinois had this last season with Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. That’s the best case scenario for teams. You want to have multiple players competing at an All-Big Ten level.

Unfortunately, Northwestern has the opposite situation this year.

The Wildcats enter this season with a few nice players, but no proven stars. Audige and Nance are the most proven and reliable options. Audige is a quality scorer that can convert outside at a decent rate. Nance is a do-it-all player down low who would probably be better playing at the four instead of the five. However, roster challenges dictate Nance spends much of his time at the five. Buie is also a player who has shown considerable improvement so far.

But all three players have their issues as well. Audige and Buie finished with offensive ratings below 100 and true shooting percentages under 50 percent. Nance also still has room to improve as a passer and isn’t nearly dominant enough down low to be considered elite at the five spot. This leaves the spot of the team’s “top player” wide open as we prepare to enter the 2021-’22 season.

Outside of the three above, Simmons and Williams are also dark horse contenders to consider. Simmons arrives as a fringe top 100 prospect who has a shot to start early. Williams is also an experienced player who could show promise on a more talented roster. However, both of these look like long shots. Audige and Nance seem like the safest bets.

7. 2021-’22 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/4 - Lindenwood (Ex.)
  • 11/9 - Eastern Illinois
  • 11/12 - High Point
  • 11/16 - New Orleans
  • 11/18 - Fairleigh Dickinson
  • 11/22 - Providence (Newark, NJ)
  • 11/23 - Georgia/Virginia (Newark, NJ)
  • 11/30 - at Wake Forest
  • 12/12 - NJIT
  • 12/5 - at Maryland
  • 12/18 - DePaul
  • 12/20 - Illinois (Springfield)
  • 12/30 - Prairie View A&M
  • 1/2 - Michigan State
  • 1/5 - Penn State
  • 1/9 - at Ohio State
  • 1/12 - Maryland
  • 1/15 - at Michigan State
  • 1/18 - Wisconsin
  • 1/23 - at Purdue
  • 1/26 - at Michigan
  • 1/29 - Illinois
  • 2/1 - Rutgers
  • 2/5 - at Nebraska
  • 2/8 - Indiana
  • 2/13 - at Illinois
  • 2/16 - Purdue
  • 2/19 - at Minnesota
  • 2/22 - Nebraska
  • 2/25 - at Penn State
  • 2/28 - at Iowa
  • 3/6 - Minnesota

This is a schedule designed for a team in flux, which is certainly where Northwestern finds itself this fall. The non-conference slate looks manageable and the Wildcats will likely make it to January before it has to face two top 75 opponents in a row. There are wins here on the slate.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the schedule comes in early January, when Northwestern dives headfirst into Big Ten play. They are listed below by their preseason KenPom ratings:

  • 1/2 - No. 22 Michigan State
  • 1/5 - No. 70 Penn State
  • 1/9 - at No. 8 Ohio State
  • 1/12 - No. 18 Maryland
  • 1/15 - at No. 22 Michigan State
  • 1/18 - No. 44 Wisconsin

Northwestern figures to be an underdog in most of those six games, but at least four of them are winnable. If the Wildcats can pull off an upset or two there, there’s a chance the team could build some real momentum. Much will depend on protecting home court.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Boo Buie (So.) - 95%
  • SG: Chase Audige (Rs. So.) - 95%
  • SF: Elyjah Williams (Sr.) - 60%
  • PF: Robbie Beran (So.) - 80%
  • C: Pete Nance (Jr.) - 95%

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

Despite middling expectations, Northwestern enters this season with a relatively predictable starting lineup. Three starters look like virtually locks and another looks like a safe bet as well. That’s good news in what could be an important season for Collins and his staff.

In the backcourt, Buie and Audige figure to lock down starting roles. They’re both back after multiple successful seasons with the program. Buie showed remarkable growth last year, becoming a solid guard. Audige also grew into one of the league’s more productive offensive players.

Most of the reserve minutes here will be taken by Ty Berry and Ryan Greer. They both saw playing time last season and should fill similar roles this time around. Berry is the key reserve option to watch, given he’s still an underclassmen. Don’t be shocked if he starts pushing for more minutes.

The wing figures to be an interesting group. Beran is back after extensive playing time last season and figures to earn a starting spot. Alongside him sit a variety of question marks. Williams joins the program as a transfer and Northwestern adds three freshmen here. There’s little telling who will be ready at season’s tip. All four should get a shot at playing time.

The good news about this position is the potential that lies there. Simmons is a major prospect who should develop significantly over the coming months. Williams is also an interesting player who could provide plenty of experience at a position group that needs a steady hand.

Upfront, virtually all minutes should go to Pete Nance and Ryan Young. They dominated playing time last season and should yet again. Nance should be the better of the two, as he was one of Northwestern’s more productive players last season. Fans will also hope Matthew Nicholson can find his feet in the months ahead.

Northwestern’s lineup certainly has some limitations. However, there’s plenty of stability and experience. And that’s at least a major positive heading into this season.

9. Realistic Team Goals

If you’ve read through the preview so far, this section shouldn’t come as a surprise. Northwestern isn’t going to be a serious Big Ten contender this season. In fact, the Wildcats are going to have an uphill battle to even make the NCAA Tournament. It’s not to say it’s impossible. It’s just going to take something completely unexpected for either to happen. None of this should come as a shock, particularly considering the last four years.

However, there are still some important goals for Northwestern on the table this season. To start, Northwestern needs to shoot some adrenaline back into its program and fan base. The Wildcats need to pull off some big wins and show some promise, particularly by getting closer to a winning record. And by doing that, Northwestern should have a shot at the NIT. Both of those would be noteworthy accomplishments this season. Scoring a rivalry win or two would likewise assist the program going forward.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Ever since making the NCAA Tournament in 2017, it’s been a tough go for Wildcat fans. The program has struggled to compete in the Big Ten and has posted four straight losing campaigns. Last year was also a particularly rough season, as the team let a fast start evaporate in December and January.

However, Northwestern enters this fall with a renewed hope. The team returns three of its better players from last season and adds a handful of intriguing prospects, including one of the program’s highest rated recruits in its history. If Collins and his staff can figure out a way to work the pieces into the lineup, the team should be competitive.

Unfortunately, the challenges in the frontcourt and inconsistent offensive production will likely prevent the team from challenging for anything major in March. Northwestern could be a dangerous team, it just seems like it will still be a step away from good.

Big Ten Prediction: 12th Place