Northwestern basketball: The pride, joy and potential savior of the Big Ten?
As a couple of its Big Ten brethren cracked eggs over their own faces, Northwestern swooped in to save the conference from complete embarrassment on Day 1 of the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
Just as we all saw coming in the preseason, when the Wildcats were picked to finish 13th in the league.
Yes, Maryland did start things on the right foot with a 67-65 win over West Virginia in the first game of this year’s Round of 64. But the Terrapins weren’t exactly convincing in doing so.
Maryland caught a lucky break a couple times in the final minute.
First, when a pretty obvious out-of-bounds call against the Terps was called against the Mountaineers on the floor, then was upheld by a video review that somehow didn’t overturn that decision. The Terps then dodged another bullet at the buzzer when West Virginia’s Kedrian Johnson just missed a clean look at a game-winning 3.
There are no style points this time of year, so you won’t catch the Terrapins complaining. But combined with the next 2 Big Ten outcomes, it was hard to get a warm and fuzzy feeling about where conference teams are headed this March.
Illinois and Iowa both failed to show up for the first half of their games, and didn’t have enough in the tank to finish rally attempts against Arkansas and Auburn.
It was up to the Wildcats to prevent the first day of the Tourney from becoming a complete spiral for the Big Ten. And the league’s longtime doormat responded.
Northwestern, which failed to reach the NCAA Tournament from 1939-2016, could even become the pride of the Big Ten this March.
Cats continue to make history
Northwestern’s 75-67 win over Boise State is a landmark in this program’s barren history — just the 2nd NCAA Tournament win for the Wildcats.
Weirdly, it puts the Cats in rare territory. Northwestern is just the 2nd program to advance to the Round of 32 in its first 2 Tournament appearances, joining Cleveland State.
The Wildcats may not do this often, but at least they know how to keep going when they get here.
Granted, that’s been the case for every team that’s played Boise State in the NCAA Tournament.
The Broncos are on the other end of the sticking-around spectrum, falling to 0-9 all-time in the Tourney going back to 1976. And the Mountain West’s NCAA struggles make the Big Ten’s seem trite. Since 2018, Mountain West teams are 1-12 in the Tournament.
None of that is relevant to the Wildcats, who should celebrate this moment regardless of opponent. You can’t tell someone to act like they’ve been here before when it’s happened once before in 84 years.
And even though it took that long for Northwestern to win 2 NCAA Tournament games, it’s fair to believe these Wildcats are capable of winning that many games in 3 days.
Can Cats continue to make more history?
Probable Second Round opponent UCLA is a popular Final Four pick. But so was fellow Pac-12 No. 2 seed Arizona, and we saw how things worked out for those Wildcats.
You could scarcely draw up a better formula for March success than what Chris Collins came up with on Thursday night.
Northwestern’s top 2 players carried their weight, with Boo Buie scoring 22 points and Chase Audige adding 20. Ty Berry, who averages 8.5 points per game, stepped up with 13. Brooks Barnhizer came off the bench to chip in another 10.
That’s everyone doing what was asked of them and then some.
The Wildcats shot 49.1% from the field and 83.3% (15 of 18) from the free-throw line. The former number is unlikely to be replicated against UCLA, but the latter figure can keep Northwestern in any game it plays.
And, of course, so will Northwestern’s defense.
Boise State shot just 32% from the field in the second half, including 20% from 3-point range. The Wildcats, who are 3rd in the country in steal percentage, added 7 more swipes to their total against the Broncos. Northwestern also limited Boise State leading scorer Tyson Begenhart to 8 points.
Defense is what put Northwestern in position to make program history this season, and it’s what will continue allowing the Cats to rewrite that record book.
A potential B1G boon
Big Ten critics have had a field day the past 2 seasons.
Only 1 team reached the Sweet 16 in 2021, and only 2 made it last year. Both lost in that round.
Northwestern — a program that never won more than 3 conference games from 1985-93 — is in a position to potentially change that discourse.
And whether or not it happens, everyone around the league should appreciate the job Collins has done getting the program in this position.
It’s not just decades of futility that he’s battling. As recently as last offseason, Northwestern lost its 2 most productive players to North Carolina and Duke in the transfer portal.
At this point, you’d never recognize that they’d ever been there. Collins somehow turned the pieces that stayed behind into an even better structure. A modern marvel, if you will.
And there’s still a bit of building left to be done.