Men’s Basketball: Where Northwestern stands in a uniquely strong Big Ten


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Pat Spencer dribbles the ball. The graduate transfer guard scored 14 points and eight rebounds on Saturday.

Charlie Goldsmith, Sports Editor

Men’s Basketball

Coach Chris Collins knows where Northwestern stands in a historically competitive Big Ten. With twelve teams in the conference projected to make the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats aren’t exactly in the mix to win the Big Ten championship.

“We’re the ones that have been the young team that’s been struggling,” Collins said. “I’m looking out on the floor to finish the game, and you’ve got a guy that hadn’t played organized basketball in four years, you’ve got a sophomore, two freshmen and another sophomore. Playing in a Big Ten league that’s as good as it’s ever been.”

NU was the last team to win a Big Ten game this season, but the Cats jumped over that hurdle Saturday by beating Nebraska, 62-57.

Now comes a five-game stretch against five of the best teams in the conference. The only unranked team the Cats (6-9, 1-4 Big Ten) will face before the end of January is Iowa (11-5, 2-3 Big Ten), who plays at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Tuesday.

But the Hawkeyes are the 26th ranked team in the NCAA, and they beat No. 17 Maryland by 18 points last week.

“It is unbelievably excruciating for the coaches,” Collins said. “I have never been a part of a conference (like this). A lot of leagues say this, but I’d be hard pressed to find a Big Ten coach who goes into any Big Ten game feeling good about it.”

The Big Ten has twelve of KenPom’s top 38 teams in the NCAA, and none of those teams have lost more than one game at home all season. NU and Nebraska are the two teams on the outside of the tournament field, but Nebraska already has home conference wins this year over Iowa and Purdue.

No Big Ten team has had a tougher road scheduler than the Cats, who played three of their first conference games on the road. To the scheduler who gave NU its away-heavy slate to start Big Ten play, Collins said, “Thanks a lot.”

“We’re 0-4, but our four games were home against Michigan State, then at Purdue, the winningest team in the conference at home in six years, at Indiana, one of the best venues, and at Minnesota, which is a really good team,” Collins said. “You were looking at 0-4, but what have there been? Like, four road wins all year in the league? We didn’t win the Michigan State game, but other than that we’ve held serve.”

Penn State lost a home game to Wisconsin after Collins wrapped up his press conference Saturday, but still only five Big Ten teams have won a conference game on the road this season.

Of the rest of the conference, only the Cats and the Iowa played three of their first four conference games on the road. And the lone home game before Saturday’s win was against No. 15 Michigan State, the top ranked team in the conference.

Despite the difficult schedule, NU lost by single digits in each of its first four conference games and was competitive every time the team took the court. Collins said he sees that as a positive sign for the program.

“I actually feel we’ve been playing some pretty good basketball the last few games and we just haven’t been rewarded,” Collins said. “We’ve shown that we can compete, and so has everyone else.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @2021_charlie