Men’s Basketball: What to Watch For: Northwestern readies for in-state battle against Northern Illinois


Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal

Sophomore guard Brooks Barnhizer dribbles the ball. After a five-point, five-rebound performance in the season opener, expect Barnhizer to play an integral role this season.

Alex Cervantes, Assistant Sports Editor

A fresh start, fresh group, fresh slate: these are the joys of a new season for one of college basketball’s most scrutinized coaches, Chris Collins. 

In his 10th year helming Northwestern men’s basketball, Collins is officially on the hot seat. His well-documented struggles following the Cats’ magical 2016-17 season have compounded ever since, and the 2022-23 campaign serves as the ultimate prove-it year. 

The Wildcats (1-0, 0-0 Big Ten) stepped up to the challenge in the season opener, routing Chicago State by 31 points. Senior forward Robbie Beran was the standout, pouring in 20 points and snagging seven boards, all while anchoring NU’s defense. 

The Cats’ focus now turns to another in-state school with Northern Illinois’s visit to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Friday. The Huskies rang in the new season with a loss, falling to Division-II Illinois Springfield 83-77 Monday. Northern Illinois was pegged to finish dead last in the MAC in year two under coach Rashon Burno, according to the conference’s preseason coaches poll. 

Here’s what to look out for as the Cats play host to the Huskies.

  1. Can Collins count on his captains replicating their opening performance?

NU’s three captains — Beran, redshirt senior guard Chase Audige and senior guard Boo Buie — combined for 49 points, 18 rebounds and 17 assists against Chicago State.

“Chase, Boo and Robbie have been three- and four-year starters in this program,” Collins said postgame Monday. “They’ve gotten better (and) they’ve developed … but those three seniors have really led us this whole offseason.”

During a game in which the Cats attempted 32 free throws, the triad shot 24-of-26 from the charity stripe. They were an efficient 5-of-8 from distance. Audige and Buie shouldered much of the offensive creation, with the former posting a career-high nine assists. They were also each on the court for at least 30 minutes. 

It wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine, though. Buie missed several touch shots around the rim, and Audige didn’t score a field goal until the second half. 

The opposing talent will only get tougher as NU marches toward Big Ten play, and Collins will be counting on the trio to establish consistency in these early contests on both ends of the floor.

  1. The health of the Huskies

A canine influenza is sweeping the nation, and it seems to have found its way to DeKalb, Illinois.

The Huskies opened the new campaign with four players absent due to injury or illness. Shorthanded, seven Northern Illinois players saw at least 20 minutes of action in the opener. Among the notable absences was 6-foot-6 guard Zarique Nutter. The Clarendon College transfer started NIU’s exhibition game a week prior, tallying 19 points in a three-point victory.

Guard David Coit, a transfer from Atlantic Cape Community College, poured in a game-high 31 points on an inefficient 12-of-29 shooting. Only one other Husky posted double digits in scoring — 23 points from returning forward Keshawn Williams. Bruno told NIU Athletics he and his coaching staff “didn’t do a good job” of having the team ready to play. 

The health of Bruno’s squad remains foggy and could potentially pose a scouting issue for Collins and company.  

  1. Barnhizer’s versatility coming into full view

Sophomore guard Brooks Barnhizer, afflicted by injury for much of last season, appears to have made the quintessential sophomore leap — albeit in a one-game sample size. 

His teammates and Collins lauded his offseason work after a sporadic first season in which Barnhizer shot 23.1 percent from the field and 18.2 percent from beyond the arc. Audige sounded the alarms of Barnhizer’s impending improvement as early as the Big Ten Media Days in October — and the Indiana native backed up the hype on opening night.

In 27 minutes, Barnhizer posted a modest five points and five rebounds, but was a pest defensively. Standing 6-foot-6, Collins heralded Barnhizer as a Swiss Army Knife of sorts, bringing much-needed versatility on both ends of the floor.

“I like bringing him off the bench and I call him a sixth starter because he can sub for anyone,” Collins said. “You can put him in the game for any of our (starters) and we can seamlessly keep playing.”

Whether as a guard, a wing or a small-ball four, Collins can slot Barnhizer wherever he desires and the expectation is the sophomore will deliver. After a phenomenal second-year debut, Barnhizer’s stock may just be beginning to soar.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @CervantesPAlex 

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