Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Illinois
When: 7:00 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020
PG Boo Buie (SO., 6-2, 180)
SG Chase Audige (R-SO., 6-4, 200), Ty Berry (FR., 6-3, 190), Ryan Greer (JR., 6-2, 190)
SF Miller Kopp (JR., 6-7, 215), Anthony Gaines (R-JR., 6-4, 210)
PF Robbie Beran (SO., 6-9, 215), Ryan Young (R-SO., 6-10, 245)
C Pete Nance (SO., 6-10, 225), Matt Nicholson (FR., 7-0, 255)
The Northwestern Wildcats struggled last season, as they finished 8-23, including just 3-17 in conference play. The Wildcats finished 13th in the Big Ten, only ahead of Nebraska. They fell to the Spartans 72-77, but Boo Buie led the way for them with 26 points. Northwestern managed one win over a ranked team, by beating Penn State by 11. The Nittany Lions were ranked 20th in the AP Poll at the time when they fell to Northwestern.
Northwestern brings back a young roster with hopes of continuing to grow. There are no seniors on the roster, so lapses in judgement and leadership are going to be apparent with this roster. Against Pittsburgh, sophomore Buie had a turnover and two missed free throws in the last 30 seconds that led to a layup and a dunk to put Pittsburgh on top. Outside of that loss, Northwestern has blown out three opponents by 43 points, 45 points, and 52 points, respectively. To be fair those wins were against SWAC, WAC, and a DII opponent so you cannot put that much weight into Northwestern’s success against them. The Wildcats currently sit at 3-1 overall.
Northwestern had a decent recruiting class, finishing 85th according to 247sports. The glow of those two three-star recruits begins to fade when you realize that is dead last in the Big Ten.
There is no go-to player on this roster, as six players are averaging double figures through four games. However, the three-point line is the star of this Northwestern roster as the Wildcats are enamored with shooting from behind the arch. This team is 13th in the country in three-point shooting. Six players are averaging at least one three-pointer per game. The Wildcats are averaging 27.5 attempts from behind the arch per game.
Northwestern plays a very chaotic brand of basketball. Coach Chris Collins has changed up their offense from the 2019-20 season. In past years, Northwestern’s half court offense looked for mid range jumpers. Their style was really underwhelming and was unenjoyable to watch. This year, the Wildcats are letting it fly from behind the three-point line. They are among the best in the nation in shooting percentage from behind the arc (42.7 three-point FG percent, 13th in the country). The Wildcats do this with a run-and-gun style in transition. It does not matter if there is four seconds or 24 seconds on the shot clock, the Wildcats will shoot the three-ball if they see an inch of space. Passing is crucial for their offense, as Northwestern average 22 assists per game, fifth in the country. In the half court, they run a motion offense. They keep the ball moving using off-ball screening actions such as flex screens and flare screens. When the offense stalls, they rely on Pete Nance to initiate out of the high post. He is a solid passer for a big man, and the Wildcats love to run dribble hand-off actions off him. Even if the initial handoff is not successful, then he can make the high-low pass to the cutter.
On defense, Northwestern has some issues. The Wildcats overplay passing lanes a lot. They are very susceptible to pick and roll actions. When they hedge the pick and roll, guards like Rocket Watts can easily split the action and get into the lane. Their fours and fives struggle to guard on the perimeter. They give some decent effort at the rim and rarely give up an open layup. On the defensive glass, they are susceptible to being out-rebounded by a rather substantial margin. They do not do a great job of collecting tipped balls.
Chris Collins is on the hot seat heading into his eighth season at Northwestern. The 46-year-old is 112-119 since taking over the Wildcats bench. Collins is looking for his first NCAA tournament invite since the 2016-17 season, when he took the Wildcats to the Round of 32. That was Northwestern’s one and only tournament invite in school history. They also finished with their first winning record in the Big Ten in almost 50 years. He is a disciple of Coach Mike Kryzyzewski at Duke, as he spent 13 years as an assistant or associate coach on the Blue Devil bench. Before that, Collins actually played at Duke. Following his four years in Durham, he played professionally in Finland for a year.
THE STATE OF STATE
Michigan State comes into this game ranked as the fourth best team in the country according to the AP Poll. The Spartans are currently undefeated through six games. The Spartans are coming off an 18-point win against Oakland. Coach Tom Izzo’s team showed off their balanced scoring as seven players finished in double figures, including freshman AJ Hoggard. The almighty Steven Izzo also got some playing time in the blowout. Michigan State showed that it still has some room to grow as the Spartans were only up by four points after the first half. Turnovers were a problem, as MSU finished with 18 compared to Oakland’s 11 turnovers. It looks like Coach Izzo also still has some work to do with setting the front court rotation. Thomas Kither had some struggles, while the small ball bigs, Gabe Brown and Malik Hall thrived off the bench. In Friday’s press conference, Coach Izzo also stated the need to get more minutes for Julius Marble. On the perimeter, it still looks like the cumulative effort of Watts, Aaron Henry, and Loyer Foster will add value as the primary creator.
The Spartans will have no trouble with the Wildcats. In order to stay in the game, Northwestern needs to nail any open look they get from behind the three-point line. Look for them to try to speed up the pace on the Spartans and possibly break out some traps and pressure defenses. At the Only Colors, we are still anticipating a double-digit win.