Men’s Basketball: Northwestern’s Luke Hunger’s journey spans from youth hockey rinks to March Madness

A basketball player in purple claps after a victory.
Northwestern redshirt freshman Luke Hunger celebrates his team’s NCAA Tournament victory over Florida Atlantic Friday. Hunger primarily focused on hockey until the age of 14.
Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal

BROOKLYN, N.Y.  — Northwestern redshirt freshman forward Luke Hunger envisioned a high-major Division 1 athletic career from a young age, but his journey to college basketball’s grandest stage started on the ice.

Hunger, a Montreal, Canada native, played defenseman in youth hockey until the age of 14. He competed alongside several NHL Entry Draft selections and a flurry of collegiate prospects. 

However, as he approached high school, Hunger said he felt like it was time for a change.

“It was definitely not an easy decision because I was on the same track for hockey that I have for basketball,” Hunger said. “I was planning to be playing Division I hockey, and I just kind of started losing my love for the game. I didn’t like going to practice six times a week and had some bad coaches … I decided I wanted a new start, a new journey.”

Looking to shift his focus from local rinks to the hardwood, Hunger consulted a mentor who’d trodden the same steps several decades earlier. Hunger’s father Rich played center at Providence, where he averaged 6.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in his four-year career spanning from 1977 to 1981.

Hunger said his father significantly influenced his playing style as a modern big, capable of stretching the floor with a silky-smooth shooting touch.

“He was also the one who told me to not just play inside,” Hunger said. “He said, ‘Just shoot, keep shooting.’ He would go to the park with me and just shoot jumpers because he knew where the game was going. It was not going to just be inside.”

During his first season as a full-time basketball player, Hunger made Team Canada’s junior national team. He blossomed into a three-star prospect — the No. 4 recruit out of Canada according to 247Sports — and garnered 23 scholarship offers. 

Once he received interest from the Wildcats, a difficult decision became much clearer, Hunger said. He considered NU in a rarified tier of dream schools and committed to the ‘Cats less than a month after his official visit on Nov. 2, 2021. 

“It was kind of an immediate click,” Hunger said. “When I came back from my visit, I was breaking my schools down. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is where I need to be. This is gonna set me up to be the most successful on the court and off the court as well.’”

Now, Hunger has stepped into a starting frontcourt role for NU’s postseason push, where he’s seen increased minutes due to senior center Matthew Nicholson’s season-ending foot injury.

Still, his hockey roots shine through whenever he takes the floor.

“Zdeno Chára is the reason why I wear number 33,” Hunger said. “When I was younger, I was always the biggest dude on the ice. I was always hitting guys, they were falling. So, they’d always call me ‘Baby Chára.’”


During the sixth game of Hunger’s true freshman year, he suffered a broken foot that sidelined him until season’s end. From Dec. 20, 2022 onward, Hunger watched his team’s magical March Madness run from the bench.

He said his time away from the game gave him an enhanced outlook.

“Sitting on the sidelines last year was tough, but it honestly gave me a chance to look at it from a third person perspective,” Hunger said. “I learned a lot defensively with guys like Matt, Tydus (Verhoeven) who taught me the game without me being on the court.”

Meanwhile, sophomore forward Nick Martinelli, Hunger’s freshman-year roommate, went from the end of the bench to rotational minutes down the stretch.

Martinelli said he and Hunger often discussed how fortunate a position they were in.

“We always talked about how this was our dream, playing for a high-major school and going to March Madness,” Martinelli said. “Just knowing that, we’re so much hungrier when we got the opportunity.”

For Martinelli, the foundations of this season’s NCAA Tournament appearance began when the pair returned for spring workouts. 

He said everyone bought into the offseason grind, setting the stage for another postseason run.

“Every day we’re coming to workouts, taking them super seriously,” Martinelli said. “Four days a week, early in the morning, every single day you’re trying to get better. You can hardly even sniff the season, and we’re in there grinding, pushing each other to the max.”

But, this time around, the former roommates wound up at the run’s forefront.

Hunger said neither could have foreseen their current roles.

“If you told us last year we’d both be starting in March Madness this year, I wouldn’t believe you,” Hunger said. “That’s a testament to both of our work … We’re both really ready to play and super excited.”


When senior guard Ty Berry and Nicholson both sustained season-ending injuries, the team’s mission didn’t change. The ‘Cats fell short of a repeat March Madness trip in 2017-18 after their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2017. Regardless of personnel, Collins’ squad wouldn’t reach the same fate.

Collins first plugged Martinelli into the starting five, then Hunger — who started several games earlier in the conference slate — stepped back into the starting rotation at Michigan State. “Next man up” is not just a program mantra, it’s ingrained in NU’s system, Hunger said.

“It’s the culture of what our program has become,” Collins said. “We have a belief that now, whoever puts on a jersey, we’re gonna win.”

Collins said both players have taken their elevated roles in stride. Martinelli went from playing 15-19 minutes per game to consistently remaining on the floor. 

With Hunger, Collins said the redshirt freshman has faced several daunting challenges for a player of his experience level, and he’s proud of his performances.

“Luke, he redshirted last year with a broken foot, so he’s really a freshman,” Collins said. “All of a sudden, you’re starting center your freshman year, playing on the biggest stage against the best players.”

Initially slotted into the starting lineup in January to produce a spark at the start of games, Hunger reverted back to a reserve role where he spelled Nicholson. He saw an ever-varying minutes’ share, but Hunger said he knew he needed to stay ready when called upon.

For the 6-foot-10 forward, remaining even-keeled was paramount.

“There’s going to be highs in the season, (but) there’s going to be lows,” Hunger said. “We lost to Chicago State, but we beat Purdue. You have to stay even mentally because the second you start getting too emotionally high or too emotionally low, that’s when you start playing bad.”

Tasked with guarding Florida Atlantic’s imposing center Vladislav Goldin during Friday’s first-round matchup, Hunger tallied eight points and eight rebounds. While Goldin poured in 19 points and grabbed nine boards, he took just six shots from the field.

Junior guard Brooks Barnhizer said the bulk of Hunger’s impact transcended his output on the statsheet.

“The only stat we look at is rebounds and turnovers,” Barnhizer said. “Nobody’s really looking at stats. Nobody is worried about that.”

When the ‘Cats match up with No. 1 UConn Sunday at the Barclays Center, Hunger will look to slow down the Huskies’ dominant 7-foot-2 center Donovan Clingan. The sophomore superstar scored 22 points in UConn’s Big East Championship win against Marquette, and Hunger will certainly have his hands full. 

The former hockey player, who said his old sport’s physicality prepared him for an arduous league campaign, said he’s approaching the most important game of his young career like he would in any other contest.

“We’ve played against really good teams — we’ve beaten really good teams just like Purdue,” Hunger said. “It’s nothing new to us … at the end of the day, it’s just basketball. We’re in the tournament, and as soon as the ball is thrown in the air, it’s five-on-five, and the winner is going to be the winner…. We’re gonna be ready for tomorrow, no matter what hits us.”

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Twitter: @jakeepste1n 

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