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Big Ten men’s basketball preview: Northwestern Wildcats

Is Chris Collins fighting for his job this season?

Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament - Minnesota v Northwestern Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Northwestern Wildcats

Head coach: Chris Collins
2020-21 record: 9-15 (6-13)
Season finish: No postseason

What comes back

It was a pretty tumultuous year for the Wildcats last season. A promising start to the campaign and a 3-0 start to their conference slate was quickly derailed by a 13-game losing streak to end the season. The Wildcats finished their season with just three wins heading into the Big Ten Tournament, and lost to Minnesota in the first round.

For the Wildcats, they are bringing back some key pieces with talent and maybe more important, experience in the league. Will that be enough to improve on last year’s disappointments? Time will tell.

NU’s scoring guard Chase Audige is returning after averaging 12.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game in 2020-21. Forward Pete Nance also returns as one of the top big men back in the conference after averaging 11.1 points and 6.8 rebounds Last year. Guard Boo Buie will also be back for Collins’ squad. Last year, he averaged 10.3 points and 4.0 assists per game.

Northwestern is also quietly bringing in a very solid recruiting class. After having the worst recruiting class in the conference in 2020, they jumped all way to sixth in the conference and 35th in the nation in 2021, according to 247Sports.

Shooting guard Casey Simmons is coming in as the 100th best prospect in the country and the top player from the state of Massachusetts. Four-star shooting guard Julian Roper is a top-150 player and a top five player from Michigan. Brooks Barnhizer is just on the outside of the top 150 as the 151st rated player in the country and will also look to make an immediate impact.

Also joining the Wildcats is forward Elyjah Williams, a transfer from Fairleigh Dickinson. Williams was All-NEC last season after averaging 13.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game. Williams also shot 42% from three-point range. At 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, Williams brings a size and versatility that the Wildcats desperately need with Miller Kopp heading to Indiana.

What was lost

In terms of losses on the roster, Northwestern does not turn over nearly as much as some other teams in the B1G. Aforementioned forward Miller Kopp transferred to Indiana after averaging 11.3 points and 3.0 rebounds per game in 2020-21 and Anthony Gaines headed to Siena after putting up 3.9 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.

Outside of that, they didn’t lose anything from last year’s team. For a coach who is likely on the hot seat heading into the season, seeing familiar faces back has to be a bright spot. However, that is likely another reason that he is on the hot seat, because if he cannot win with this roster, especially the veterans and experience that he has returning, then it might not ever happen.

Hence, Richard Pitino in Minnesota last season. Pitino could not get the job done, and it will be interesting to see if Collins is any different.

Against Ohio State in the Chris Holtmann era

Historically, this series has been all Ohio State. In the 122 matches in the teams’ history, OSU is 98-24 against the Wildcats, which is good for an impressive .803 winning percentage.

Since Chris Holtmann took over at Ohio State, the Buckeyes are 4-2 against the Wildcats. However, Northwestern’s biggest win last season came against Ohio State. In their third conference game of the year — the day after Christmas — the Wildcats defeated the then-No. 23 Buckeyes 71-70. After that game, Northwestern went on a 13-game losing streak, including losing their second game against the Buckeyes.

Season prediction

Chris Collins is officially in Richard Pitino territory; win this season or it could be his last in the job. Luckily for Collins, they do have some talent in Evanston and have a strong transfer in Elyjah Williams joining the squad.

The problem for Northwestern this year is the problem they face every year; they have to play a Big Ten conference schedule and the league is not often kind to teams that have a talent disadvantage.

For the Wildcats to have a successful season, they will need to win some big games in conference — like they did against Ohio State last season — and hope to earn an NCAA Tournament berth, otherwise, they might be looking for a new coach to helm the program.

Next up in the LGHL preview series: Penn State Nittany Lions