For just the second time in program history, Northwestern’s men’s basketball team is going dancing.
The Wildcats, who finished the season 21-11, have been one of the best stories in college basketball after many predicted they would not make a leap in 2022-23. They proved their naysayers wrong and nabbed the No. 7 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament.
“To get there, have success, take a step back and then kind of rebuild it and get back there, it’s been a lot of hard work from a lot of people,” head coach Chris Collins told the Chicago Sun-Times. “A lot of belief. A lot of time where we just had to hang in there because we saw we were making progress.
“We had a bunch of guys stay the course, see this through, and now they’re going back to the tournament, which is very exciting and obviously really special.”
The Wildcats will start their March Madness journey against No. 10 Boise State on Thursday in Sacramento. Here’s what you need to know.
How Northwestern got here
Ahead of the season, ESPN predicted Northwestern would finish 12th in the Big Ten. Instead, the Wildcats set a single season record for conference wins (12) and won the second-most games in one season in program history (21).
Northwestern’s path to being a part of the Big Ten’s upper echelon started with a huge upset over No. 20 Michigan State on Dec. 4 where Boo Buie, the team’s scoring leader, put up a 20-point performance to stave off the Spartans. The team was off to the races after that, taking down No. 1 Purdue once and No. 14 Indiana twice over the course of the season. When it was all said and done, Wildcats finished second in the Big Ten before the start of the postseason.
Northwestern’s players to watch
The Wildcats’ turnaround has come on the shoulders of two players in particular: Boo Buie and Chase Audige.
Buie, whose 17.1 points and 4.5 assists per game led the team this season, attracts the majority of opposing defenses’ attention. He has proven all year he can be the No. 1 option on a team trying to go deep in March and has the ability to reel off a 30-point performance when he gets going. His scoring prowess earned him an All-Big Ten first team selection.
Next to Buie is Audige, who complements his teammate’s ability to put the ball in the basket with the type of perimeter defense coaches seek out when putting together a winning roster. On the way to being selected as the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten, Audige was 12th in the nation in steals (72). He also averaged 13.3 PPG while hitting 32.6% of his three-point attempts.
The duo is confident in what they will bring to the biggest stage in college basketball. Audige told Sports Illustrated last month he thinks him and Buie are “the best backcourt in the country” while Buie said people need to “wake up” about what the two guards bring to the table night in and night out.
Chris Collins’ masterful job
Building a program from the ground up is a daunting task but Collins has been able to do it after 10 years with the Wildcats. He was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year after leading his team to a winning record for the first time since the 2016-17 season.
“Way back when, [we] had this dream of creating a new Welsh-Ryan,” Collins told the Big Ten Network, referring to Northwestern’s arena. “Creating this atmosphere that could rival what we see at other places in our conference and nationwide. [This season] has been everything we dreamed of.”
That dream of a packed house every night doesn’t come to fruition without the work Collins has done with the program. He has won 155 games since taking over as Northwestern’s head coach 10 years ago and is hoping he can propel the team to a few more in the form of an NCAA tournament title.
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James Kay is a freelance reporter who has covered the Chicago Sky for the Chicago Tribune, MarketWatch and The Next Hoops. He hosts and produces a podcast covering the team called The Skyhook Podcast and is a mass communications/journalism graduate from the University of Iowa.