Northwestern men’s basketball 2022-2023 post-mortem: History made every step of the way

Mar 21, 2023 - 6:13 PM
COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 08 <a href=Northwestern at Indiana" src="" />
Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the first men’s basketball roundtable published before the 2022-2023 NCAA Men’s Basketball season, not one writer predicted Northwestern to have a winning record. Not one thought the team had any chance to compete at all this season, not after going 15-16 in the 2021-2022 campaign and losing Pete Nance to North Carolina and Ryan Young to Duke.

We were wrong, and the country was wrong about these Wildcats, who defied expectations from Day One. Northwestern finished with a record of 22-12, made the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history and set the program record for Big Ten wins.

Though the year started with zero national attention, Northwestern knew how important this season would be. It started with the letter athletic director Derrick Gragg published a few days after Northwestern got rocked by Iowa in the 2022 Big Ten Tournament.

This put Chris Collins on the hot seat, and without immediate success Northwestern would be looking for a new coach. Along with this, Northwestern was picked to finish 13th in the Big Ten, and some even picked the ‘Cats to come in last. The season was not supposed to unfold the way it did for Northwestern.

But, a few non-conference wins to open up the season started to show the team’s improvement from last season. In particular, two games in Cancun in late November proved Northwestern would not lie down this season. The Wildcats were down double digits against Liberty and one of the top guards in the country Darius McGhee and stormed all the way back to win the game by 14, then the next day, they held No. 13 Auburn and its high-flying SEC offense to 43 points. Though Northwestern lost that game, it was clear that the team was centered around its defense.

As the team moved into conference play, where many thought they would fall off, they continued to thrive defensively. Chris Lowery, in his first year in Evanston, brought in a new scheme that transformed the Wildcats; teams struggled to score on them and after Jan. 31, not a single team reached the 80-point mark.

Northwestern’s offense, while turbulent, also took a step forward. It all started with its two guards who both had the best seasons of their careers. Boo Buie became the primary scoring option, and the senior guard had the best statistical season of his career, averaging 17.3 points per game, along with 3.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists. When it wasn’t Buie, it was Chase Audige. While he prides himself on his defense, Audige also put up a career high in points per game with 14.1.

Buie and Audige were always at the center for Northwestern, but the Wildcats found other ways to get production. Whether it was Ty Berry, Robbie Beran, Matthew Nicholson or Brooks Barnhizer, Chris Collins had some secondary options to use when the guards struggled. Each had notable offensive performances: Berry scored 26 in Lincoln against Nebraska, Beran shot the lights out to help Northwestern beat No. 15 Indiana in Assembly Hall, Barnhizer had a coming out party over the second-half of the season and Nicholson’s offense kept Northwestern in the Round of 32 game against UCLA when Buie and Audige were coming up with nothing.

Northwestern was full of contributors. After losing Julian Roper II for most of the season to an ankle injury, first-year Nick Martinelli was thrown into the fire and had an immediate impact. Tydus Verhoeven, in his one year in Evanston, showed vast improvement as the season went along and became a dependable number two option behind Nicholson. It’s clear that every player on the roster bought into the team’s identity and played with it.

It’s hard to write about every single game, but Big Ten play always offered a different challenge for the Wildcats, who seemed to enter almost every game as an underdog, and that’s how they liked it. This started against Michigan State in East Lansing, where Northwestern led for most of the contest and beat Tom Izzo’s squad on the road for the second straight year to notch its first conference win, with Buie scoring 20 points.

And while they got a rude awakening after getting battered by Ohio State on Jan. 1, the Wildcats rebounded by beating rival Illinois for the first time since 2019, and a few days after, stormed into Assembly Hall to defeat nationally ranked Indiana. Northwestern was up by as much as 17 in that game, and while the Hoosiers stormed back, it was too late. This is when the Wildcats started getting national attention, receiving votes in the AP Poll for the first time since late 2020.

After this huge win, Northwestern experienced some losses, but the group always responded with wins. A losing streak was matched with a longer winning streak, showing the resiliency this team had. Then came the biggest win of the season, and we all know what happened.

No. 1 Purdue came into Welsh-Ryan Arena on a Sunday afternoon and it was sure to be Northwestern’s toughest test of the season. The Wildcats trailed for most of the game but behind the efforts of Buie, Northwestern found itself down only eight at the under-four media timeout. Then, it became all about Audige, who exploded to give Northwestern the lead. This is when, as the Big Ten Network’s Dave Revsine best said, “The improbable season takes an impossible turn.” History was made in Evanston and Northwestern beat the AP No. 1 team for the first time in program history.

It only got better. Only a few days after this historic win, the ‘Cats beat ranked Indiana for the second time this season, this time coming in Welsh-Ryan Arena. After the Hoosiers stormed back from being down 19, Buie hit a floater with one second remaining to seal the win. A few days after that, Northwestern destroyed Iowa to get revenge on a program that had dominated them for years. After this, the Wildcats were ranked in the AP Poll for the first time since 2020, sitting at No. 21 in the country.

While Northwestern lost some games towards the end of the regular season, its win in the finale against Rutgers sealed a record for most Big Ten Wins in school history with 12. NU finished the regular season at 21-10 and 12-8 in conference play. Though the ‘Cats lost their first game in the Big Ten Tournament to Penn State, it was still a historic year in-conference, finishing in second place.

The season was also filled with awards for the nationally-recognized Wildcats. Buie was named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, which is given to the best point guard in the country. Audige is a finalist for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. Collins, who came into the season on the hottest seat in the conference, won Big Ten Coach of the Year. All accolades were well-deserved for a team that nobody thought could succeed.

Not only did Northwestern make the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history, but it won its Round of 64 game against Boise State. Similar to what we’ve seen all year, Buie and Audige led the way, scoring 22 and 20 respectively, and Northwestern did not trail once to dethrone the Broncos.

Then came Saturday night, where the season came to a close in Sacramento.

Yes, Northwestern lost to UCLA in the Round of 32, but the amount of fight the team showed in that game is exactly what it has come to be known for. After being down as much as 14, the Wildcats fought back behind their two stars, Buie and Audige, and brought a legitimate national title contender to the wire.

This Northwestern team showed throughout the year that expectations are nothing more than a thought. They provided life to a school that for years has been seen as the little guy in the Big Ten, a school that is known for academics rather than sports.

Northwestern basketball showed that a small school in a pro-sports town could not only compete, but win.

This team will forever be etched in not only Northwestern history, but college basketball ‘s, and the 2022-2023 squad gave the Northwestern community and the program a year that they will never forget.

Hopefully, it will set the foundation for years to come.

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