Pete Nance drives inside during Northwestern’s 64-56 loss to Rutgers on Jan. 31. Nance’s emergence has been a bright spot in a turbulent season. (Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer)
Pete Nance drives inside during Northwestern’s 64-56 loss to Rutgers on Jan. 31. Nance’s emergence has been a bright spot in a turbulent season.

Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Men’s Basketball: After a rocky start, Pete Nance is living up to the hype. Now he’s a Big Ten problem.

February 10, 2021

Men’s Basketball

With just seconds left in their district championship and down by two points, the Revere High School Minutemen needed a play. Fortunately, they had Pete Nance. 

With Revere’s guards covered, the team turned to the towering Nance for their last-gasp attempt. On the inbound, Nance drove the ball upcourt, the waning seconds ticking off the clock. Though not the plan, the play was fitting — the Northwestern recruit and senior leader with the ball in his hands on the biggest stage. 

That’s where Nance diverged from the superstar mold. Instead of pulling up for the last shot, Nance threw an effortless one-handed pass across the court to teammate Chris Richardson, who was standing wide-open right behind the three-point arc. Richardson’s shot swished, giving Revere a 46-45 win. 

Nance, the assistor rather than shooter, was in the middle of the celebration, as animated as anyone. Before and after the buzzer, he didn’t need the spotlight on himself. 

“He’s a guy that doesn’t have to score a lot of points to impact the game,” Revere coach Dean Rahas said. “As any smart coach who would do, we would try to run everything through him because we knew either he was going to score or he was going to give the ball to somebody who was in a scoring position.”

Three years later, those unique aspects to Nance’s game have helped him to hold his own in the loaded Big Ten conference. Through 16 games, the 6’10” junior has made the starkest improvement of any Wildcat, averaging career-highs in nearly every major statistical category. After a challenging first two years, Nance has found his confidence and set the tone for a young NU team. 

The road to Evanston

Pete Nance’s basketball journey wasn’t a choice — it was a natural stage of life in the Nance household. Nance’s father, Larry Sr., was a three-time NBA All-Star and won the league’s first Slam Dunk Contest in 1984. His older brother, Larry Jr., currently plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and his older sister, Casey, was a captain on the Dayton Flyers in the early 2010s. 

That meant years of hard-fought one-on-one games on the basket nailed to the side of the Nances’ house in Akron, Ohio, and few victories for Pete.

“My brother’s seven years older than me, but I would always try to go up against him and compete with him because I had no other choice,” the youngest Nance sibling said. “It was really hard for me at times, but I think it made me tougher in the end.”

After a couple years splitting his time between the court and the football field, Nance fully committed to basketball and took off. Nance starred in his four years at Revere, playing all five positions and bearing the offensive load for the Minutemen. In his senior year, Nance, surrounded by his best supporting cast, helped Revere overcome an 0-3 season start  and win the school’s first district championship, a feat that not even his older brother had achieved. 

While Nance says that his name got college coaches in the door, his game cemented his status as a prized four-star recruit. Multiple Big Ten programs showed interest, with NU, Michigan and Ohio State among Nance’s suitors. The deciding factor in Nance’s decision — the chance to make a mark on the history of Wildcat basketball. 

“A lot of other schools you go to, there’s a set history already, those teams have already been good,” Nance said. “But here, there’s a chance to build a team, build something special and be a part of the first part or first team to ever do something.”

Unexpected adversity

Nance’s first two years in Evanston were rocky. A bout of mononucleosis derailed Nance’s freshman season, causing him to miss nine games and adversely affecting his conditioning. In year two, he began the season in the starting lineup but shooting struggles and a drop in production prompted coach Chris Collins to relegate Nance to the bench

“The average freshman year is a learning experience,” Nance said. “But I think my sophomore year, I had a really tough stretch and I had the mentality of pointing fingers — ‘everybody was wrong besides me.’ I really had to look in the mirror and just get to the gym and work.”

Nance finished his sophomore season on an upswing, scoring in double-digits in four of his last seven games off the bench and rebuilding his confidence in the weight room and gym. Then, hours after the Cats’ season-ending loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament, the sports world came to a halt from the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of a spring of scrimmages and grinding in the gym and weight room, Nance practiced his shooting on the nail-on hoop outside his home and traded the free weights and machines for resistance bands. Instead of a couple months of together as a team, Nance and his teammates were dispersed across the country, resorting to texts and FaceTimes to spur each other on. 

Junior forward Miller Kopp said Nance’s resilience shone through during the quarantine period.

“During the pandemic and stuff but throughout his career there’s obviously the ups and downs and that’s visible to everybody watching,” Kopp said. “The thing that he’s done about that is work harder. It taught him how much he had to learn, how much more he can do.” 

“I’m here to compete”

Nance’s offseason work and dedication to becoming a more physical player was evident in his return to the starting lineup this year.

Against then-No. 4 Michigan State in NU’s Big Ten opener on Dec. 20, he tallied 15 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists as the Cats pulled off a historic home upset. Nine days later against No. 10 Iowa and reigning All-American Luka Garza, Nance hit three three-pointers in a 21-point scoring outburst. Two months into the 2020-21 season, he has boosted his field goal percentage from .400 in his sophomore season to .523 and raised his per-game averages in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

The little things Nance has done on the court, from his off-ball movement to his unusual passing abilities for his size, have been just as impactful. 

“I love playing with him because you know you’re always an option,” Kopp said. “We vibe well on the court together because he knows where I’m going to be and which shot I like and he’s like that with everybody on the team.”

The flashes of playmaking ability that Pete Nance showed three years ago in the district championship have finally made the jump to the Big Ten stage.

It’s emulating the other component of that highlight — the winning result — that Nance has his eyes on next. NU’s nine-game losing skid has dimmed prospects of the team’s second-ever NCAA tournament bid, but Nance has confidence that the Cats can turn it around before his time in Evanston is over.

“I’m here to compete for a Big Ten title and that’s something that we can get to,” Nance said. “I’m here to get to the tournament, all the things that Coach Collins talked about when I was being recruited here. Those hopes and dreams are still very much alive for me.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @john__riker

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