Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Men’s Basketball: Northwestern readies for first-round matchup against 8-seed Florida Atlantic

Daily file photo by Anna Watson
Graduate student guard Ryan Langborg drives toward the lane against Michigan.

NEW YORK — For the first time in program history, Northwestern has made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.

After getting bounced in the second round by 2-seed UCLA last year, coach Chris Collins’ squad returned in the fall with the aspiration to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke.

It has been a long, arduous run back to the Big Dance for the Wildcats, who tallied their second straight 21-win regular season despite suffering season-ending injuries to two key starters — senior guard Ty Berry and senior center Matthew Nicholson.

In anticipation of NU’s fifth-ever NCAA Tournament game on Friday, graduate student guard Boo Buie said his team has had a whirlwind, yet fulfilling journey over the past couple of years.

“Throughout the past two seasons, we’ve been fortunate enough to win a lot of games,” Buie said. “We have a lot of older guys and some guys that have tournament experience. I think it’s going to be our job to lead the younger guys (on) what to expect.”

In the ’Cats’ path lies 8-seed Florida Atlantic, a team that stunned the nation after making a Cinderella run to the Final Four as a 9-seed last year.

Returning the core of its roster from last season, the Owls are led by junior guard Johnell Davis, who averaged 18.2 points on 48.7% shooting en route to being named Co-AAC Player of the Year.

Accompanying Davis are junior guard Alijah Martin and junior center Vladislav Goldin, both of whom were named to the All-Conference second team.

Here are three storylines to follow as NU takes on FAU.

1. Can the ’Cats slow down the tempo?

The Owls boast a prolific offense that averages 82.5 points per game, good for 16th in the nation. They also slot in at 17th in the country in KenPom’s offensive efficiency ratings.

Often utilizing a fast-paced style to excel on the open floor, FAU differs from the ’Cats’ tendency to slow down and rely on halfcourt execution to outlast their opponents.

“They want to get out and run,” Collins said. “They want to space the floor. They want to play a high-scoring game, and that’s not really going to be a great formula for us with our depth and how we are wired.”

One key for NU will be turnovers. The ’Cats rank fifth in the country in turnovers, giving the ball away only 8.8 times a game. By contrast, the Owls average 11.1 turnovers per game with Davis accounting for 2.7 of them.

If NU can stick to its ball security prowess and force enough turnovers on the other end with the help of Big Ten All-Defensive Team selection Brooks Barnhizer, Collins and company have a good chance to make it back to the second round.

“They average 82 points a game,” Barnhizer said. “Some keys to that is not having live ball turnovers, taking good shots and valuing our possession. I feel like if we do those three things, it will definitely help.”

2. NU’s suffers from a lack of depth

Berry’s torn meniscus and Nicholson’s broken foot have forced the ’Cats to play without their best 3-point shooter and rim protector for the latter portion of their season. The injuries led Collins to reinvent the team’s offense, relying less on floor spacing and more on smart, safe basketball, he said.

Matching up against FAU, a team that enjoys a combination of excellent perimeter play and attacks from the post, NU will need to stay composed on the defensive end without sacrificing too much physicality.

“We don’t have a lot of depth, having a couple guys out, so fouls can become a real factor,” Collins said. “We have to do a good job of being aggressive and physical, but yet play without fouling.”

One potential matchup problem comes in the form of 7-foot-1 Goldin, who averaged 15.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game this year.

Without the post presence of Nicholson, sophomore forward Luke Hunger and graduate student forward Blake Preston will have to step up to contain the opposing big.

“Goldin is a terrific big man,” Collins said. “His skill level at seven feet tall, his ability to run the floor and get deep position. We’re down one of our bigs, so it’s going to be important that we do a good job of being physical and playing hard.”

3. Buie’s last ride

With Friday potentially being Buie’s final collegiate game, his teammates have expressed their intentions to battle with his looming departure in mind.

“The weight that Boo carries is unmatched, not only on court, but as a leader off the court,” Barnhizer said. “There’s no other way that we want to honor him than going out and making a run.”

Buie, the player who has led the program to its most successful two-year era, has enjoyed a career-best season with averages of 19.2 points and 5.1 assists, in addition to being named a unanimous First Team All-Big Ten selection.

The ’Cats’ all time leading scorer put up 29 points in the squad’s 70-61 loss against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals last Friday, rising to the occasion once again despite the defeat. If Buie keeps this momentum, it will be up to his teammates whether they advance or not.

“I try not to really think about the fact that I won’t be able to play next year, or else I’ll get too sad,” Buie said. “I just try to stay focused on the present each day and give my team the best every single day, and that’s what I’m going to do in this next game.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @lucaskim_15

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