clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2022-’23 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 2022-’23 season.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022-’23 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2022-’23 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.

***

March 12, 2017.

It’s a memorable day in the history of Northwestern basketball. For the first time in program history, the Wildcats heard their name called on Selection Sunday. After years of torment, Northwestern was finally heading to the Big Dance. In fact, they hadn’t even had to sweat it out. Northwestern made it as an eight seed and would eventually go on to the Round of 32 before falling in dramatic fashion to a loaded Gonzaga team.

It was a remarkable season and Chris Collins was responsible for it. He recruited the roster, developed the players, and put it all together when it mattered most. And it hadn’t been easy, either. It took several seasons to resurrect Northwestern from the basement of the Big Ten, gradually building from the ground up.

It was a magical time.

Unfortunately, the magic has now worn off.

Since making that NCAA Tournament appearance in 2017, Northwestern has been dreadful. The Wildcats have now gone five seasons without a postseason bid, posting losing records in each campaign, and finishing with a putrid 26-71 (.268) record in Big Ten play. It’s difficult to understand how a program that was just a bucket or two away from the Sweet 16 has fallen on such hard times, but it’s reality in Evanston.

And for Collins, that isn’t good news.

Northwestern decided to stick with Collins after last season, but the writing is now on the wall. Collins needs to show meaningful progress this season, or he’s going to be shown the door. It’s not something anyone would have envisioned in 2017. However, where we are now. And the pressure is on.

So, can the Wildcats bounce back and save Collins’ job? Let’s take a look.

1. 2021-’22 Season Performance

  • Record: 15-16 (7-13)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #87
  • NET Rating: #91
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Last season was a rough one in Evanston. Despite modest hope the Wildcats would progress with much of the roster returning, Northwestern couldn’t deliver, limping to a 15-16 overall record and a quick exit in the Big Ten Tournament. As noted above, it was the fifth consecutive year the Wildcats had delivered a disappointing performance.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of last season was how quickly things turned for the worse. Northwestern actually began the year with moderate success. The Wildcats jumped out to a 4-0 start and eventually reached 8-2 overall and 1-0 in Big Ten play by the end of December. The team’s advanced metrics had also risen during that time, with Northwestern rising all the way to 36th nationally. Add in that both losses had come against good opponents by tight margins and things look even a bit better. By every traditional measure, Northwestern was playing like an NCAA Tournament contender.

Unfortunately, that’s when the wheels came off.

The Wildcats not only slid from there, but lost the team’s next four games and eight of the team’s next nine games. By the time that stretch finished on January 29th, Northwestern was sitting at 9-10 overall, 2-8 in Big Ten play, and 67th on KenPom. In less than a month, Northwestern watched its hopes and dreams go up in flames. It’s rare to see a team’s script flip like that, let alone in just a few weeks. And while Northwestern did bounce back from that slide, going 6-6 to close out the season, it could never fully recover.

Highlights of the season included the non-conference win over Georgia, the regular season wins over Indiana and Michigan State, and the win over Nebraska to open up the Big Ten Tournament. Low points included the single-digit losses to Providence and Wake Forest in non-conference play, the blown opportunities against Penn State, Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois, and the blowout loss to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament.

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

2. Offseason Exits

Northwestern got hit decently by offseason attrition this season. The Wildcats lost a total of five players in Ryan Greer, Pete Nance, Casey Simmons, Elyjah Williams, and Ryan Young. All five played significantly last season, including Nance who was arguably the team’s best and most productive player. He opted to hit the transfer portal and choose North Carolina over a variety of other programs.

The most significant departure will obviously be Nance. He was Northwestern’s best player upfront, led the team in points and rebounds, and routinely delivered in the team’s biggest games. Even look at Northwestern’s first Big Ten win last season on the road against Maryland. Nance finished with a 113 offensive rating, 17 points, and 10 rebounds. It was a stellar performance and gave the team one of its best victories of the season.

Greer and Young are next in terms of significance. Greer was the team’s best reserve in the backcourt and Young played behind Nance. Northwestern will have its hands full trying to find a backup as efficient as Greer, who finished with a pretty solid assist rate and avoided fouls. Young seems more replaceable, but was a monster on the offensive boards. Simmons and Williams also saw their fair share of action. Simmons’ departure is particularly significant given that he was a big pickup on the recruiting trail and transferred after a single season.

All told, the losses here aren’t overwhelming. It’s not exactly unprecedented for a team to lose a starter and a few valuable depth pieces. However, the cumulative effect of the departures shouldn’t be understated. This is going to drain the depth chart significantly and particularly upfront. We’ll have to see what Collins can do to replace it.

3. New Additions

This season, the Wildcats will be adding three recruits, a transfer, and a walk-on. The recruits are Luke Hunger, Nick Martinelli, and Blake Smith. Rivals lists Hunger and Martinelli as three-star prospects and 247Sports lists Hunger as a three-star as well. Martinelli is listed as a small forward and Hunger as a power forward. Smith is an unrated guard. Gus Hurlburt also joins the program as a walk-on.

None of the three prospects project as instant impacts, but Hunger is certainly the one with the most impressive profile and seems to be the one with the highest likelihood of making an early impact. He’s listed at 6-foot-10 and 255 pounds and seems likely to fill some of the open minutes left by Nance and Young. He will have to work on his offensive skillset to make an early mark, but he certainly has the size and physicality to see action. Martinelli and Smith are rawer prospects that will likely take more time to provide a serious boost to the Wildcats.

The lone transfer is Tydus Verhoeven. He’s a power forward from UTEP that’s listed at 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds. He played the five for the Miners last season and will likely fill a similar role for Northwestern this season. Verhoeven is obviously undersized to be a five in the Big Ten, but he did post some decent numbers at UTEP, particularly in block rate and his shooting percentages. While things will need to improve, at least he has a few skills to bring to Evanston that can combine with those offered by Hunger.

Overall, this isn’t a group of additions that anybody’s gonna write home about. Nonetheless, these should help Northwestern’s frontcourt and add some valuable depth moving forward.

4. Points of Optimism

While the national media won’t be high on the Wildcats heading into this season, there are some reasons to believe Northwestern will show tangible progress in the months ahead. It comes from the team’s deep set of returners and what should be better depth. Northwestern should also have the advantage of playing against what projects as a weaker Big Ten.

Of course, if Northwestern is going to find success this season, it’s going to come from the team’s key returners. The Wildcats return four starters from last season, highlighted by Boo Buie and Chase Audige. They were two of the team’s primary offensive contributors and accounted for a ton of the team’s perimeter production. They give Collins a base to work with heading into this season.

Additionally, Northwestern’s incoming additions also have the chance to improve the team’s depth considerably. The Wildcats lost some key reserves this offseason, but there’s a chance things could improve, particularly on the wing. Hunger and Verhoeven are likely going to contribute significantly this season and Martinelli is a wildcard that has the chance to hit the ground running. And if a few of these guys can outperform expectations, Northwestern’s wing group could take a serious step forward.

All of this also comes in the context of what projects to be a down season for the Big Ten. The league failed to get a single team in the top 10 in the preseason polls and is ranked as the third in KenPom’s preseason conference rankings, which would be the Big Ten’s worst performance since 2018 if it holds up. Having a weaker schedule doesn’t guarantee success, but it certainly helps things. Upset attempts become a bit easier and a few toss ups might move into the winnable category as well. it makes improvements “feel” more significant, even if they’re only modest.

5. Points of Concern

Unfortunately, Northwestern also enters this season with a fair bit of concern as well. In fact, the points of concern largely outweigh the reasons for optimism. And that’s because the Wildcats enter with overall talent deficits, the loss of arguably the team’s best player, and without a guaranteed set of replacements for their departures. It could make this season a challenging one for Wildcat fans.

Arguably the biggest concern has to do with Northwestern’s overall talent issues. We all know the Wildcats don’t recruit exceptionally well, but the roster has really regressed in recent years. Unlike the teams that launched Collins’ tenure in Evanston, this team is devoid of nationally relevant recruiting prospects, and part of that comes from the recent departures of Pete Nance and Casey Simmons. And even if a large portion of the roster returns, it’s just not a group with a ton of upside. We’ve seen these players already and have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to be this season. That’s the problem you get with a roster like this. There just isn’t a ton of room to grow.

The loss of Nance also can’t be undersold. He was Northwestern’s most productive and important player last season. He contributed on both sides of the court, at multiple positions, and stretched out his perimeter game as well. It’s the reason so many schools sought him as a transfer. Unfortunately, replacing him will be nearly impossible for the Wildcats. Even if some of the newcomers hit the ground running, they’re not going to be Nance. And adding the departure of Young on top of him adds even more concern to the frontcourt.

Moreover, it’s important to be realistic about Northwestern’s newcomers as well. Verhoeven was a decent player in Conference USA last year, but that’s really about it. He wasn’t anything remarkable, which raises some concern about how he’s going to transition up a level to the Big Ten. Similarly, the recruits have decent potential and could turn into solid contributors down the line, but none are five-star, instant impact prospects. And that raises concerns regarding how they’re going to replace players like Nance.

All told, these are some major obstacles ahead for Northwestern. They can overcome them, but it’s not going to be easy and it’s going to take some guys outperforming expectations.

6. Top Player

Once again, Northwestern enters this season without a clear top option on the roster. The Wildcats have a number of potential options, but nobody is an obvious choice. The two frontrunners here are clearly Buie and Audige, who return this year for their senior seasons. Audige seems like the more likely choice given the growth of his game. However, Buie should be the workhorse of the team and seems like a solid option as well.

Other dark horse contenders include Beran, Berry, and newcomer Verhoeven. None of them project as star players, but Berry and Beran were efficient last season and Berry was one of the team’s most productive outside players this season. Verhoeven had decent numbers at UTEP and he’s certainly going to get plenty of options in a young frontcourt. The new recruits are also dark horse contenders.

7. 2022-’23 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/2 - Quincy (Exh.)
  • 11/7 - Chicago State
  • 11/11 - Northern Illinois
  • 11/15 - at Georgetown
  • 11/18 - Purdue Fort Wayne
  • 11/22 - Liberty (Cancun, Mexico)
  • 11/23 - Auburn/Bradley (Cancun, Mexico)
  • 11/29 - Pittsburgh
  • 12/4 - at Michigan State
  • 12/11 - Prairie View A&M
  • 12/17 - DePaul
  • 12/20 - UIC
  • 12/29 - Brown
  • 1/1 - Ohio State
  • 1/4 - Illinois
  • 1/8 - at Indiana
  • 1/11 - Rutgers
  • 1/15 - at Michigan
  • 1/18 - at Iowa
  • 1/21 - Wisconsin
  • 1/24 - at Nebraska
  • 1/28 - Minnesota
  • 2/2 - Michigan
  • 2/5 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/9 - at Ohio State
  • 2/12 - Purdue
  • 2/15 - Indiana
  • 2/19 - Iowa
  • 2/23 - at Illinois
  • 2/26 - at Maryland
  • 3/1 - Penn State
  • 3/5 - at Rutgers

Northwestern gets about as reasonable a schedule as fans could have hoped for this season. The Wildcats only project to play one really difficult non-conference opponent and have enough winnable conference games to have a shot at earning a postseason bid. It will take some luck, but the possibility is there.

Non-conference play is highlighted by three games. The first comes on the road against Georgetown in the second week of the season, the second comes against Liberty in Cancun in late November and the last is at home against Pittsburgh. KenPom favors Northwestern in all three matchups, but not heavily. As such, all three present as swing games. Plus, if Northwestern can beat Liberty, it should get an opportunity against a really good Auburn squad. A win against the Tigers would certainly be huge.

Of course, conference play will be a major challenge. And Northwestern got a particularly difficult draw with double-plays against Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. The only real break is avoiding a double-play against Purdue, who Northwestern gets in Evanston in the sole game between the two. Otherwise, the schedule’s a real gauntlet. Northwestern is simply going to have to find some magic and pull off some upsets. It’s just reality.

The opening stretch of conference play also looks particularly crucial. Just take a look at it below with KenPom odds listed alongside:

  • 1/1 - Ohio State (46%)
  • 1/4 - Illinois (46%)
  • 1/8 - at Indiana (15%)
  • 1/11 - Rutgers (53%)

That’s four games where three look winnable, but none are guarantees. It’s going to be crucial for the Wildcats to find a way to win at least one or two of them. Otherwise, Northwestern could risk another rough start to conference play. Don’t forget, Northwestern opened last season at 8-2 before collapsing with a 1-8 stretch in January. The team needs to avoid such a slide this time around.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Boo Buie (Sr.) - 95%
  • SG: Ty Berry (Jr.) - 90%
  • SF: Chase Audige (Sr.) - 95%
  • PF: Robbie Beran (Jr.) - 85%
  • C: Tydus Verhoeven (Rs Jr.) - 55%

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

Despite relatively underwhelming preseason expectations, Northwestern enters this season with one of the most predictable lineups in the Big Ten this season. While there’s some uncertainty, four returners make things relatively straightforward. Fans will primarily be hoping things will settle in behind them.

In the backcourt, Boo Buie and Ty Berry will likely lock down things in the backcourt again. Buie was one of the league’s more productive guards last season and Berry was a decent contributor alongside him. The main question will be who plays behind them. Julian Roper provided backup minutes here last season and he will likely do it again. Realistically, Roper is the key here. If the position group is going to improve, it’s most likely going to come from him given his youth.

On the wing, fans will get two more familiar faces with Chase Audige and Robbie Beran. Audige grew into a reliable scorer last season and Beran was a solid starter. Both should be in line to start again. Like the guard spots, the question here will be who will play behind them. Expect freshmen Luke Hunger and Nick Martinelli to get a look and some of the reserve minutes to be filled by Tydus Verhoeven if things really go sideways.

The biggest question, though, will come upfront. With the exits of Nance and Young, there’s a massive void on the roster at the five. Verhoeven projects as the most likely option to start here, but it’s uncertain whether he has the size and stamina to hold his own at the five in the Big Ten. Behind him, Matthew Nicholson will be the other option after playing limited minutes last season.

Overall, Northwestern should have plenty of stability in the lineup. Much of the team’s success will depend on how the Wildcats develop the center position and the bench. If so, Northwestern could be pretty dangerous.

9. Realistic Team Goals

Northwestern enters this season in a slightly unusual spot. The Wildcats return much of last year’s roster and production. Four of the team’s starters are back and several of the bench players as well. By most general standards, that’s pretty encouraging. Unfortunately, those returners come back from a team that went 15-16 overall and did virtually nothing against quality opponents for the last two months of the season. The lone departing starter was also the team’s most important player.

It all makes for an interesting dynamic. Collins is faced with the challenge of making a better dish with many of the same ingredients. Expect much of the same as last year. A relatively solid squad that competes most nights, but can’t finish against the better opponents. The question will be whether the Wildcats can get a few surprising contributors. If so, a postseason appearance is a possibility.

10. Overall Season Outlook

It’s been a rough few years for Wildcat fans. Despite the early success under Collins, the program has regressed in recent years. Northwestern is not only no longer a factor in the Big Ten, but hasn’t even been able to finish at .500 over the last five seasons. The talent has regressed and the star power has decreased. It’s been a rough run.

Those struggles have now put Collins’s job firmly on the line as Northwestern enters his 10th season at the helm. It’s put up or shut up time for Collins and his group.

The good news is Collins projects to have plenty of experience on his roster and more than enough pieces to improve from last season’s mark. The Wildcats return four starters and have two players capable of getting some All-Big Ten mentions. Unfortunately, the question is how much the team can improve. And that likely will end up being insufficient for fans and the administration to accept as the Wildcats seem poised for another underwhelming finish.

Big Ten Prediction: 13th Place