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Getting To Know The Enemy: 5Qs About The Northwestern Wildcats

Ignacio Dowling from Inside NU joins us for a little Q&A

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at DePaul Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Hello TOC Nation! Michigan State got the monkey off their back with their win Thursday night over Penn State to get conference win #1 of the season. Now the Spartans go on the road to take on the pesky Northwestern Wildcats on Sunday evening. We are joined by Ignacio Dowling from Inside NU to discuss the matchup. Here’s what Iggy had to say.

TOC: After qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history last season, what were the expectations coming into the 2023-24 season? Currently, you are 10-3 and are the lone team who has beaten #1 Purdue. How have your expectations for this season changed at this point?

IG: I think the general consensus around Evanston coming into this year was that Northwestern would return to the NCAA Tournament, but with a little more difficulty along the way than in 2022-23. With Co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chase Audige’s departure, it was inevitable that it’d be tougher for NU to maintain its defensive-heavy identity, and I think most people understood that. However, with four de-facto starters (highlighted by Boo Buie) returning in addition to Ryan Langborg transferring in from Princeton, the team’s veteran-heavy core made it easy to be confident.

Since November, I’ve been slightly less optimistic about the team than that: I predicted Northwestern to be the eighth-best team in the Big Ten at 9-11, and I thought it would need an extra win or two in the Big Ten Tournament to go dancing. Thus, while the fanbase’s expectations have probably fallen down to Earth a little bit, I’d say mine have remained pretty similar. Obviously, I didn’t foresee the Wildcats falling to Chicago State in December, but it was very clear to me that their perimeter defense would regress early on without Audige in the fold.

That’s not to say Northwestern isn’t a good team with potential, because I think it is, but it has a ton of work to do and many adjustments to make before one can make the assumption that it’ll be tournament-bound.

TOC: Boo Buie has been playing college basketball since the Obama administration and he has had some big games against Michigan State. Was there something you were hoping to see him add to his game going into this season? Have you seen that so far? Is he finally leaving NW after this season?

IG: Buie was this team’s lifeblood on offense last year; it’s why he earned an All-Big Ten First Team selection. Really, the one thing I was looking for this season – other than his success in replicating that performance – was improvement at recognizing when to defer to others without forcing bad looks on off-days when his shot isn’t falling.

In non-conference play, Buie mastered that without taking away from his ability to take over a game when he’s hot. A prime example was Northwestern’s Detroit Mercy game on Dec. 10, when he dropped a season-low five points. It was the first game after his incredible performance in the upset over Purdue, and he went 2-of-9. He very easily could have forced more looks, but he instead focused on thriving as a playmaker, and racked up nine assists in a 32-point blowout. Buie has done a really good job in that area even though he’s the best player on the team by far.

And yes, Buie is using his fifth and final year of eligibility this season, so 2023-24 is his collegiate swan song. I can hear the sigh of relief out of East Lansing from across the lake.

TOC: Aside from Buie, who should MSU be most concerned with? What has that person’s career trajectory looked like? Do they have something new this year?

IG: Ryan Langborg should be a name to watch. This is clearly a very different Michigan State team compared to when it lost to Wisconsin and Nebraska in December, but a common thread in those losses was that it struggled to defend the perimeter. That’s something Langborg can do extremely well. You might remember him as one of March Madness’s best stories last year. Langborg led Princeton to the Sweet 16 with his shooting prowess and dropped 26 in the season-ending loss to Creighton.

He arrived at Northwestern as a grad transfer that spring, and he’s had some stellar moments in NU’s first two months of action as the team’s new starting shooting guard. None was bigger than his 20-point game against Purdue, when he constantly nailed contested shots. He’s shooting north of 40% from three-point range – a career-high – on comparable volume to his senior year at Princeton. In a pregame media availability, Brad Underwood said Langborg “might be the best shooter in college basketball.”

Putting the icing on the cake for an all-time jinx, Langborg struggled against Illinois on Tuesday, going just 1-of-7. However, I’m a big believer in the law of averages, so I think he could be in store for a big performance at home on Sunday. If he gets hot from three-point land to add to the threat Buie poses on the perimeter, Michigan State might need to shoot about as well as it did against Penn State to keep pace.

TOC: Looking at some statistics, Northwestern is last in the Big Ten in rebounding but first in turnovers (tied for 7th nationally). How do your struggles with rebounding impact your game strategy? What makes you so good at ball security?

IG: I actually wrote an in-depth piece about this on our site a few weeks ago. For anyone who wants to do some deeper pregame reading, please go check it out.

READ MORE: Examining Northwestern's Rebounding and Unique Statistical Profile

The gist of the article is that the relationship between Northwestern’s tempo and its rebounding issues is counterintuitive. Like you mentioned, the Wildcats place a huge emphasis on avoiding turnovers because they play at a very slow tempo (their adjusted tempo is 351st in the nation as of Jan. 6, according to KenPom). That minimizes the number of possessions in a game, which in turn makes each one more important. Last year, that worked really well because it played right into Northwestern’s biggest strength: its elite defense and its ability to force turnovers with a fierce post trap.

You’d probably expect a smaller team (four starters at 6-foot-6 or smaller) that struggles on the boards to play at a quicker pace that favors its perimeter-oriented guards. Northwestern hasn’t. Defensive rebounding issues make a slow tempo much less effective because they essentially give away free possessions, which becomes ever more critical in a slower-paced game.

However, NU’s ball security is its saving grace; having three senior ball-handlers helps with that a ton. Playing at a slower pace also makes live-ball turnovers less likely to be self-inflicted.

TOC: What is the most important thing the Wildcats need to do Sunday to beat MSU for the 4th time in the last 5 matchups?

IG: Northwestern has to prevent Michigan State from getting out in transition for easy threes as it did against Penn State a few days ago. That’s one of the many things Illinois did well in its blowout victory over the Wildcats in Champaign on Tuesday night.

On Friday, I asked Chris Collins about what impressed him most about Michigan State’s most recent win, and he underscored the speed of MSU’s transition offense when it came to creating open shots. For a team that has had its fair share of struggles with perimeter defense, Northwestern can’t allow the Spartans to get a ton of easy looks and seize momentum early. The Wildcats are going to have their hands full with Tyson Walker already; allowing A.J. Hoggard or Jaden Akins (or even Malik Hall, if he puts on an encore) to catch fire with him would be a recipe for disaster.

Bonus Question: Predict the final score. How many points does Boo Buie score?

IG: I think Michigan State wins 67-65 in a close one. Both teams are constructed pretty similarly and match up very well with each other, but the Spartans have the better coach and the better defense. That’s a nice recipe for a road victory. I think this is a game where Buie shines while some other perimeter players struggle, so I’ll say he gets to 24 on the night.

TOC would like to thank Ignacio for his help with this article. Good luck on Sunday.