Warren’s World: Northwestern men’s basketball is what we thought it would be. But the Wildcats should be better.


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Ryan Young attempts a layup. The freshman center is Northwestern’s starter this season.

Peter Warren, Sports Columnist

The expectations for Northwestern men’s basketball heading into the season were as low as they had been in years — almost every national media outlet had the Wildcats finishing the season in last place in the Big Ten. And now, about three months into the season, NU is right where everyone thought it would be — at the bottom of the conference.

At 6-13 and 1-8 in Big Ten play, the Cats are on pace to finish with their second-worst record of the 21st century after the 2007-08 NU outfit that went 8-22 with only one conference win. The Cats have won just two games since the end of Fall Quarter, and they will most likely be underdogs in all of their remaining games. With so much inexperience on the roster coming into the season — a rebuilding year for the program — these results aren’t be super surprising. But NU should be better. It at least feels that way.

Maybe that’s because of who handed the Cats some of those 13 losses. NU may play in one of the strongest conferences in recent memory and is one of the top 25 teams in the country in strength of schedule, but it also lost to Merrimack, Radford and Hartford at home! Nothing against any of these teams — all of which currently have winning records — but if you want to be a respected Power Conference team, you can’t lose to three low-majors at home.

Maybe that’s because the Cats haven’t gotten lucky. They played DePaul, Indiana and Illinois close to the end on the road. NU doesn’t win close games, despite the Cardiac Cats moniker. Heading into Tuesday night’s contests, NU ranked 349th out of 353 Division I teams in Adjusted Luck according to KenPom. It marks the second straight season the Cats will finish in the top six of unluckiest teams in the country.

Maybe it’s because the team can be fun to watch. Pat Spencer is one of the best stories in the country and it’s impossible not to enjoy watching him play his heart out every time his kicks hit the hardwood. Boo Buie’s exciting game of heat-check triples and aggressive drives to the rim is equal to his fun name. Miller Kopp is looking like a potential No. 1 option on the wing over the past month, averaging 17 points per game on 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Maybe it’s because the offense has demonstrated rhythm after playing like an out-of-sync middle school orchestra for large portions of last season. It’s not like the Boston Pops on the court this season, but there’s been flow, creativity and movement that was not there last season. Some of that has come from having two natural lead guards initiating the offense, but it also comes from having a more balanced offense attack.

Maybe it’s because the team hasn’t been at full strength for most of conference play. Anthony Gaines, NU’s best defender and a captain, is out for the season and hasn’t played since Dec. 18. Buie missed about a month with a foot injury. AJ Turner missed a game with an injury. Robbie Beran is currently dealing with a knock. And these injuries have resulted in some wonky lineups, including the Spencer-Kopp-Nance-Beran-Young lineup that has started six games this season. And these hodgepodge fives haven’t been disasters.

Yet, this NU team will finish with the worst record of the Chris Collins era. Despite all of the positives that can be drawn out of the spin zone, the Cats once again struggle at the most important part of playing basketball: scoring more than your opponent.

There are a lot of comparisons that can be made between this team and that 2007-08 team — the worst of the Bill Carmody era. The 2007-08 team was the eighth one coached by Carmody — this is Collins’ seventh season in Evanston. The 2007-08 season came after winning 13 games the previous season and 14 the year before that — NU won 13 last year and 15 games in 2017-18. Both squads were defined by their inexperience, with the 2007-08 team averaging 1.2 years of experience and the 2019-20 squad having only 0.8 years of experience.

And what happened to NU over the next three years after that disastrous 2007-08 campaign: one 17-win, two 20-win seasons and three NIT appearances.

Maybe the next three years will be similar to the 2008-2011 stretch. Maybe Kopp, Nance, Beran, Buie and others continue to drastically improve, Maybe an elite recruit or two enrolls. And maybe the Cats see the postseason as early as next spring.

But to do that, NU needs to be better now.

Peter Warren is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.