Men’s Basketball: “It’s a collective effort”: Northwestern boasts retooled frontcourt in 2022-23


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Junior center Matt Nicholson stands in the paint in a game last season. Coach Chris Collins expects Nicholson’s role to increase this upcoming season in the frontcourt.

Alex Cervantes, Assistant Sports Editor

In the span of a month and a half, 1,769 career points departed Northwestern’s frontcourt this offseason.

Wildcat stalwarts Pete Nance and Ryan Young headed south, joining the two historic programs situated on Tobacco Road: North Carolina and Duke, respectively.

Their exits left a gaping hole down low, which coach Chris Collins admitted he would have a hard time filling. Collins recruited the pair of players as the Cats’ big duo of the future, and while Nance and Young did spend four years in Evanston, a return for a fifth year didn’t ultimately pan out. 

“No one is going to singularly do the things that Pete could do,” Collins said. “He was unique in his skillset, and we tried to use him in that way. (And) Ryan, the low-post scoring option that he became (made him) a four-year player in our program.”

So, the burning question as the 2022-23 season approaches: who will fill the void?

The answer is a triumvirate of young and old, all of whom are new or inexperienced to Big Ten play: graduate student forward Tydus Verhoeven, junior center Matt Nicholson and freshman forward Luke Hunger. Collins said he envisions the three-headed attack will produce something similar to that of their predecessors.

Verhoeven is making his third stop at the Division I level, after spending five total years between Duquesne and the University of Texas at El Paso, respectively. His career stats don’t jump off the page — he averaged a career high 6.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season — but bringing his veteran presence to Welsh-Ryan Arena this year made him a “key pickup,” Collins said.

The 6-foot-9 forward’s defensive mobility and potential switchability on the perimeter makes him a vital piece for the frontcourt, regardless of how much he can produce offensively. Still, Collins said he expects Verhoeven to “play around the basket” and work off the guards.

Verhoeven might still be getting acclimated to the shift in climate from west Texas to Illinois, but he’ll lean on his postseason experience with the Miners to help lead this new bunch down low.

“When you play postseason basketball, it’s just a different feel,” Verhoeven said. “That’s something I want to really bring back here because this is a great program they have here, everything’s going right for them.”

Outside of senior forward Robbie Beran, who is more of a wing than true big, Nicholson is NU’s lone frontcourt returner who has seen Big Ten action.

The 7-footer has only once seen the floor for more than 10 minutes in a conference game — the upset victory over Michigan State last year. In an impactful 13 minutes of action, Nicholson recorded five points, six rebounds and three assists. He also picked up four fouls in that span — his career average for fouls per 40 minutes is nine. 

Intrigue surrounds how Nicholson will operate with more playing time, especially in a group that doesn’t boast a ton of depth.

“He was a guy last year who sat behind Pete and Ryan and learned under those guys,” Collins said. “Now, it’s his time. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s physical, he’ll kind of be more of a low post guy.”

Collins never wavered from the decision to platoon Nance and Young last season. When one came in, the other came out, and vice versa. It was a welcome sight when the duo saw time on the floor together. 

This year, Collins expects to feature different frontcourt tandems more frequently. Hunger’s ability to stretch the floor, combined with the sheer fact that Beran cannot play 40 minutes every game, leaves room for him to tinker with different frontcourt combinations, he said.

“There’s going to be packages where you’ll see those guys on the floor together,” Collins said. 

Pairing Hunger alongside either Verhoeven or Nicholson still gives NU the fourth man outside the arc, but defensively it raises some concerns about whether Hunger can guard on the perimeter and stick with some of the wings at the four position in the Big Ten.

Nevertheless, standing 6-foot-10 and weighing in at 255 pounds, Hunger may just be physically ready. He said competing day-in and day-out with Verhoeven, Nicholson and Beran at practice has made him a better player, and his ability to shoot the ball adds another dimension.

“I’ll be able to play the four and the five to stretch the floor, kind of add a different player to our offense,” Hunger said.

There is a palpable buzz surrounding what Collins and this group can do — at least coming from the guys in purple and white in Welsh-Ryan.

Clearly in the hot seat, Collins will deploy a retooled frontcourt this season, certainly hoping they can help right the ship on Lake Michigan.

“Anytime you start a new season, it’s fresh,” Collins said. “You don’t carry any of the good or the bad from previous years. Everybody’s 0-0.”

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Twitter: @CervantesPAlex 

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