Men’s Basketball: Inside Northwestern star freshman guard Boo Buie’s return to the court

Boo+Buie+dribbles+the+ball.+The+freshman+played+in+his+first+game+since+December+on+Tuesday.

Joshua Hoffman/The Daily Northwestern

Boo Buie dribbles the ball. The freshman played in his first game since December on Tuesday.

Charlie Goldsmith, Sports Editor

Boo Buie was being pushed around, and the most important thing was that it didn’t seem to phase him. He was the first player on the court Tuesday, working out with assistant coach Emanuel Dildy two hours before Northwestern’s tipoff against Maryland.

Whenever Buie drove the lane in his pregame workout, Dildy whacked him with a crash pad. Sometimes, Dildy would defend him one-on-one and give the freshman guard a forearm to the chest or an elbow to the ribs. Buie took every hit, making it look like he hadn’t missed the Wildcats’ last five games with a left foot fracture or lost a step at all.

Buie showed no hesitation in pregame warmups, and 30 minutes after he went back to the locker room, he was officially active to play his first game since December 29.

The best-case scenario was for Buie to hit the ground running and carry the team like he did throughout the back half of December, or for Buie to provide the same scoring punch that nearly led NU to victory against No. 11 Michigan State and DePaul.

But coach Chris Collins knew these might have been unrealistic expectations. Buie finished with just 3 points on seven shots Tuesday in his first game back, NU’s (6-12, 1-7 Big Ten) 77-66 loss to No. 17 Maryland (15-4, 5-3). Buie couldn’t recapture the magic he created in crunch time earlier this year, even though the Cats desperately needed it as they lost a double-digit lead in the second half.

“To expect a freshman who’s been out a month to come in and be on fire, I knew there was going to be some rust,” Collins said. “Anytime you’ve been out like that, it takes some time to get your rhythm back.”

Buie was out long enough to lose that rhythm. After suffering a foot injury in December, he couldn’t practice for 18 days.

Buie watched from the sidelines as NU’s offense waned in the first half in early January at Minnesota, and he watched the Cats fade down the stretch and blow a second half lead at Indiana. Buie ended up missing five games, and his loss was a big one.

In the three games before he got hurt, Buie averaged 21 points per game on 53 percent shooting. Against the Spartans, he made five threes to spark a second half comeback, and Buie went toe-for-toe with Big East Player of the Year contender Charlie Moore in a close loss to the Blue Demons. Buie was NU’s leading scorer in the month of December.

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery called Buie one of the best freshmen in the country and credited the Cats’ struggles in Big Ten play to Buie’s injury. He had a point –– NU only scored more than 70 points in one of its five games without its sharpshooting lead ball-handler.

But NU didn’t rush Buie back. A stress fracture like Buie’s gets worse as it takes more wear and tear, and Collins said he wanted to ensure this wouldn’t be an issue going forward.

“It was a stress injury, and a big part of (healing) that is rest,” Collins said. “We didn’t want the pounding and we had to listen to the doctors and make sure he stayed off it, which he did.”

Buie was cleared to return to the court for some light work last Friday, and he worked out on the floor at Illinois before the Cats’ game against the Fighting Illini last Saturday. Buie was cleared Sunday to get reps and full speed and contact, and he also practiced with the team Monday. Buie would come off the bench against the Terrapins, but he wasn’t on a strict minutes restriction.

Despite Buie’s physical pregame workout designed to prepare him for a matchup against one of the best teams in the Big Ten, the freshman guard wasn’t as dynamic as he was before in his return to action. He only played 16 minutes against Maryland, and Buie had the second-worst scoring total of his career.

He checked in for the first time five minutes into the game, and Buie called his own number on his first possession. He blew by his defender and got an open floater off the drive, but that attempt bounced off the side of the rim. Buie made his next shot –– a 27-foot three-point shot –– but he didn’t make another the rest of the game.

Collins said NU needed Buie’s shot creation in the second half, so he had the freshman guard on the floor for the most important minutes of the game. The Cats led by 14 points at halftime, but their offense couldn’t keep it up in the second half. NU made just three field goals in the last ten minutes, and Buie was 0-for-1 from the field during that stretch.

Buie entered the game for the final time with 4:27 left and the Cats down 2 points. Even though NU needed the heroics Buie had provided earlier this season, he wasn’t able to save the Cats in his first game back.

After Buie’s up-and-down performance, Collins said Buie showed signs that he’ll quickly regain his footing as a dangerous Big Ten point guard.

“I believe in him,” Collins said. “He’s a big shot taker and a big shot maker. That’s what he’s going to do in his career, and he’s got to be in there and work through some successes and failures.”

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Twitter: @2021_charlie

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