Men’s Basketball: What to Watch For: Still dancing! Northwestern readies for clash with No. 2 UCLA in round of 32


Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

Redshirt senior guard Chase Audige dribbles the ball. Fresh off pouring in 20 points in Northwestern’s win against Boise State, the Wildcats will likely need a similar result from Audige to pull off an upset over the Bruins.

Alex Cervantes, Senior Staffer

“Survive and advance.”

The motto of March Madness, constantly repeated by coach Chris Collins and his two backcourt standouts — senior guard Boo Buie  and redshirt senior guard Chase Audige — following Northwestern’s 75-67 win against Boise State on Thursday at the Golden 1 Center. 

A 42-point combined effort from Buie and Audige, along with 13 points from junior guard Ty Berry, propelled the Wildcats to the program’s second NCAA Tournament victory. With the dust from NU’s first-round triumph settled, the focus now turns to Saturday’s meeting with 2-seed UCLA. 

The Bruins reigned as the Pac-12 regular season champions and have been among the nation’s top teams all season long. Led by the conference’s player of the year guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA boasts the top defense in the country, as well as a top-25 offense, according to KenPom. The team is coming off an 86-53 drubbing of UNC-Asheville in the first round Thursday.

Here are three storylines to monitor as the Cats take on the Bruins. 

  1. Buie steps up when the lights are the brightest — can he do it again? 

In NU’s five games against ranked opponents, Buie is averaging 19.8 points per game. If you exclude the Cats’ clash with Auburn — in which only three players across both teams scored over 10 points — Buie’s average jumps to 23.3 points. In those four conference games, he’s shooting an average 49.2% from the field in those games — despite making just an average 20% of his three-point attempts.

Buie, plain and simple, is NU’s ignition on the offensive end. He’s been on a tear of late, averaging 20 points and 4.7 assists per game over the Cats’ last 10 contests, including a game-high 22 points and five assists against Boise State.

Collins and the rest of the coaching staff will be looking to get Buie going early against UCLA, though that will be no small order. 

The Bruins have a host of defenders they can throw at him. Though they will be without their National Defensive Player of the Year candidate guard Jaylen Clark due to injury, guards Tyger Campbell, Amari Bailey and David Singleton can all matchup with the Cats’ talisman. 

Collins and company may have to get creative in attacking UCLA’s defensive efforts — beyond Buie’s typical dribble handoffs and middle ball screens — because NU’s success Saturday hinges on his ability to pick apart a defense only four teams have beaten this season.

  1. Which team wins the turnover battle?

Saturday’s clash between the Cats and Bruins pits two teams that are equally incredible at limiting their own turnovers and forcing their opponents into a ton. 

NU coughs the ball up on just 14.7% of its possessions, according to KenPom. The Cats’ 9.7 turnovers per game ranks in the top-10 nationally in fewest per contest. UCLA’s numbers are nearly identical. The Bruins turn the ball over on just 15.2% of possessions and average just 10.2 turnovers per contest, a mark which ranks in the top-20 nationally. 

On the other end of the floor, each team hangs its hat on its ability to create havoc defensively. 

Audige averages 2.4 steals per game, leading a team that boasts a 12.1 steal percentage and forces opponents into turnovers on 21.5% of possessions. Meanwhile, UCLA forces nearly 16 turnovers per game, with the four players competing Saturday averaging at least a steal per game.

In a meeting between two teams with such similar ball security philosophies, the winner of the battle likely emerges the victor Saturday. 

  1. The status of UCLA’s frontcourt

Though this game will likely be dictated by both teams’ guard and wing play, the uncertainty surrounding the Bruins’ frontcourt depth is worth monitoring.

Starting forward Adem Bona injured his left shoulder in UCLA’s 19-point win over Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals. He has not featured in the two Bruins games since, but he did participate in practice and warmups ahead of UCLA’s victory against UNC Asheville. The Los Angeles Times’ Ben Bolch reported Bona was cleared to play in the first round, but coach Mick Cronin opted not to use the freshman in the Bruins’ 33-point win. 

With Bona’s status unclear ahead of Saturday’s meeting between NU and UCLA — though Cronin said he would “test him more” at Friday’s practice — the shift turns toward the Bruins’ other two forwards: Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne. The duo, who average a combined 2.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, each recorded 10 points in the first round, with Nwuba snagging four boards and Etienne grabbing two. 

If Bona suits up Saturday, the Cats will be dealing with a much greater offensive threat than either Nwuba or Etienne provides. If not, more of NU’s defensive attention can be devoted to UCLA’s dynamic trio of Campbell, Jaquez and Bailey.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @CervantesPAlex 

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