Men’s Basketball: What to Watch For: Dancing Again! Northwestern heads out west for first-round date with 10-seed Boise State in Sacramento


Daily file photo by Gabe Bider

Junior center Matthew Nicholson celebrates after Northwestern’s win against Indiana in February. The Wildcats’ victory over the Hoosiers was one of several resume-boosting triumphs which helped the team nab its second-ever NCAA Tournament bid.

Alex Cervantes, Senior Staffer

For the second time in program history, Northwestern is dancing in March.

In front of a sizable crowd of purple and white Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena , the Wildcats heard their name called after a six-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament.

“There’s no feeling like seeing your name come up on the Selection Show,” coach Chris Collins said. “That’s the dream: You want to be a part of March Madness and give yourself a chance to compete for a national championship. And we’ve earned that.”

For NU’s upperclassmen, the journey has been far from smooth. The highs and lows have been tremendous in their three or four seasons in Evanston, but now, after years of toiling in the basement of the Big Ten, their dream has come to fruition.

Though the occasion is a momentous one, neither Collins nor his two lead guards — senior guard Boo Buie and redshirt senior guard Chase Audige — said making the NCAA Tournament satisfies the Cats. When addressing reporters Sunday, it was clear the trio expected to “make some noise” once the ball is tipped against 10-seed Boise State on Thursday.

In the immortal words of Kobe Bryant , “(the) job’s not finished.”

  1. Buckle up for a defensive rock fight

Thursday’s clash between the Cats and the Broncos has all the makings of a defensive slugfest. 

Neither team plays at a particularly fast pace offensively — both NU and Boise State boast adjusted tempo ratings that rank sub-215 nationally, with each squad’s average possession length eclipsing 18 seconds, per KenPom — and both the Cats and Broncos possess a top-15 defense. 

That being said, the two teams’ defensive strategies diverge from there. 

NU leans heavily on its rim protection and its ability to force opponents into turnovers. The Cats hold opponents to 46.6% shooting on two-point shots, a mark which ranks in the top-40 nationally, according to KenPom. Led by Audige, NU averages 2.4 steals per game and forces opponents into turnovers on 21.7% of possessions.

Boise State is equally stifling defensively, holding opponents to 64.3 points per game. The Broncos excel at keeping opponents off the offensive glass and hold opponents to 30.9% shooting from beyond the arc. Boise State’s switchability along the perimeter defensively could spell trouble for NU’s backcourt. 

The key, though, may come down to the Cats’ perimeter defense. As a team, Boise State shoots 36.5% from three-point land, with a pair of deadeye shooters in guards Max Rice (41.5%) and Chibuzo Agbo (40.8%). NU’s ability to monitor shooters for 40 minutes could very well determine Thursday’s outcome. 

This game, in all likelihood, is going to be a low-scoring rock fight. The pace will be slow and methodical; the possessions for each team will be few and far between. 

It’s the kind of game that has become NU’s bread and butter, but will the Cats’ recent struggles in closing out games rear its ugly head one final time in the 2022-23 season? 

  1. Buie vs. Shaver: Which guard propels their team to victory?

The battle between Buie and Bronco guard Marcus Shaver Jr. is arguably one of the best head-to-head backcourt matchups in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. 

Stylistically, the pair of 6-foot-2 guards each shoulder a heavy load of offensive production, though in different ways. 

Buie is NU’s offensive engine and catalyst. The All-Big Ten guard leads the team in points (17.1) and assists (4.5) per game on 40.2% shooting from the field and 31.4% from beyond the arc. Whether in isolation scenarios or out of high pick-and-rolls, Buie is looking to get downhill with his favored right hand. If a dribble drive isn’t available, he has no problem stepping into pull-up three-pointers, namely from the top of the key or wing.

Though not necessarily the scorer Buie is, Shaver fills the stat sheet, leading the team in rebounds (6.1) and assists (3.8), while also posting 13.5 points per game, good for third on the team.

Neither Buie nor Shaver are particularly efficient scorers, but their individual offensive battle will heavily influence the outcome of this game. 

  1. Can Audige and Berry break out of their offensive slump?

Buie’s starting backcourt mates in Audige and junior guard Ty Berry have seen their recent performances mired by severe shooting woes. 

Following an incredibly hot spell in December and January, Audige’s offensive efficiency spiraled rapidly. Since the Cats’ bout with Michigan on Feb. 2, Audige is shooting 30% from the field and 27% from three-point range. During that 11-game stretch, in which NU boasted  a 6-5 record , he scored fewer than 10 points five times — he recorded  only  three single-digit performances from November to January.

Berry, meanwhile, had a roller coaster year shooting the ball. The highs are incredible — including his career-high 26 points against Nebraska, illustrating his tremendous value when he gets activated. However, the lows — notably a stretch from Jan. 15 to Feb. 12 where Berry tallied fewer than seven points in eight of nine games — have been equally discouraging.

After the pair combined for 11 points on 4-of-24 shooting from the field , including 1-of-11 from beyond the arc, against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, Audige and Berry could benefit with a fresh start on the sport’s biggest stage.

Now, NU is facing a team which holds opponents to 30.9% shooting from distance and will be looking to frustrate Audige and Berry throughout the game. Needless to say, the Cats likely can’t survive another dreadful shooting night from the pair, who must shake off their recent struggles if the Cats are going to move onto the Round of 32. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @CervantesPAlex 

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