EVANSTON, Ill. – Last summer, Northwestern coach Chris Collins looked around his locker room and tried to envision what could be achieved.
Some coaches would have squinted. Others might have covered their eyes. Northwestern’s best two post players, and one of them arguably most talented overall player, had transferred out — to North Carolina and Duke, of all places. Other players with remaining eligibility also departed.
The team was coming off five consecutive losing seasons since 2017, when it became the last major conference team to reach the NCAA tournament. Collins faced job pressure as athletic director Derrick Gragg, who didn’t hire him, had publicly noted the disappointment of the previous season. Most coaches in Collins’ situation would reflexively go to the portal for help. But Northwestern isn’t the type of program or school that can grab transfers in bunches. The team added graduate transfer Tydus Verhoeven, a reserve forward who averaged 6.6 points last season at UTEP, but no others.
Collins entered the most pivotal season of his career with only 10 scholarship players.
“It wasn’t about what we lost, it was what do we have, and how can we be good?” Collins told ESPN. “That was the mindset from Day 1 and the belief that the guys had starting off the year.”
Northwestern lost to Penn State in overtime of the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals but earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, where it will face No. 10 seed Boise State on Thursday in the West Region.
It did so with only eight healthy scholarship players and only two transfers, Verhoeven and Chase Audige, who arrived in 2019 and had to sit out a season, before the portal and the one-time eligibility waiver even existed.
“I’m not sure that this group could win if we haven’t been through what we’ve been through,” guard Boo Buie said. “We’ve been through a learning stage. The fact that we have everyone on the team that’s been together since they were freshmen, we built a relationship with each other that is kind of unbreakable.”
Buie, Audige and forward Robbie Beran all entered their fourth seasons at Northwestern saddled with a 32-53 record. Juniors Ty Berry and Matthew Nicholson only knew losing, too. Northwestern didn’t add a transformative freshman. Nick Martinelli, the team’s only contributing first-year player, has been solid off the bench, but averages only 9.8 minutes.
Collins tried to bolster the roster with another body or two but missed out on several targets.
“We’ve always felt our model was through the development stage,” he said. “The academic schools, the transfer is a little bit more difficult, just with credits transferring and how that all works out toward graduation. So for us to solely rely on transfer portal is not going to be a good recipe.
“We have to get it right with high school guys, we’ve got to develop and we’ve got to retain.”
Other programs at top academic schools must apply a similar approach, even at a time where portal activity around the sport continues to increase. Last May, Stanford added Michael Jones, a graduate transfer from Davidson and the program’s first transfer of any kind since 2009.
Notre Dame had three transfers on its team this season, one from Stanford. Vanderbilt has three undergraduate transfers on its roster — from Rice, Minnesota and UC Davis.
Northwestern has been selective about undergraduate transfers during Collins’ tenure, looking mostly toward players from programs with similar profiles (the school has more flexibility in adding graduate transfers). After the NCAA run in 2017, the team added A.J. Turner from Boston College. Audige came in from William & Mary.
“We’re still going to be in that market,” Collins said. “But you see some of these teams that have four or five transfers in their starting lineup, it’s just going to be a little bit harder for us to do it that way.”
Despite the dramatic changes in roster construction around the sport, Northwestern has essentially built its two NCAA tournament teams — spaced six seasons apart — in the same way. The 2016-17 roster had no transfers and relied on a group of sophomores and juniors who had time to develop into their roles.
“With my group, we played as young kids and then we grew up and we made the tournament,” said Northwestern assistant coach Bryant McIntosh, a star point guard for the 2016-17 team. “That’s what we also did with this one. Boo played as a freshman, Chase came in but he’s played since he was a sophomore here, Robbie played as a freshman. All our guys, they get opportunity early, and you take your lumps.
“Player retention and player development’s critical in how we try and do things, just because we can’t use the portal as much.”
Northwestern’s first tournament team didn’t have to worry much about player retention, now an annual concern for every coach. But after losing McIntosh and other core pieces, Northwestern became very young and won just seven of 33 Big Ten games over a two-year span. Collins targeted last season for the next breakthrough, but Northwestern went 15-16, dropping 12 games by eight points or fewer.
The team then saw three-year starter and leading scorer Pete Nance transfer to North Carolina, and top reserve Ryan Young leave for Duke. Both had their degrees, but Tobacco Road transfers still stung.
Other players could have followed into the portal and found seemingly more stable situations and, most likely, additional NIL money.
Your BIG TEN COACH OF THE YEAR pic.twitter.com/W0lWqUcyT9
— Northwestern Basketball (@NUMensBball) March 7, 2023
“I just wanted to finish what I started,” Buie said. “My whole thing was I was coming during a rebuild and I told them I wanted to be a part of the next team that makes the NCAA tournament here. It was my last year and I could have ran, I could have went to another school, joined a winning program and went that route, but I look at that as running.
“I’ve always been a guy that had a chip on my shoulder and always been doubted my whole entire life. So I just used it as more fuel just to motivate me and my guys.” Buie earned first-team All-Big Ten honors, while Audige was a second-team selection and the league’s co-Defensive Player of the Year. Collins went from the hot seat to Big Ten Coach of the Year. First-year assistant Chris Lowery, who orchestrated the trap-heavy defense that shaped the team’s identity, won the Big Ten’s inaugural Howard Moore Assistant Coach of the Year award.
Northwestern recorded its first-ever win against the nation’s No. 1 team, beating Purdue as part of a five-game win streak. Despite clear limitations on offense, the team won at Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin and Rutgers. Its six Big Ten wins tied the 1930-31 team, which captured Northwestern’s only outright Big Ten championship, for most in school history.
“We’ve had a group of guys that have now played together for two, three years, and have seen things through and have gone through ups and downs,” Collins said. “Now we’re kind of reaping the rewards of that development.”
Northwestern’s next challenge is avoiding a total roster reboot. Buie, Audige and Beran all have another year of eligibility, but if they depart, Collins will be filling major production voids on both ends of the court.
The team’s shift in trajectory could make it more appealing to transfers, and the coaches will do their portal diligence. But they also have proof that there’s an alternative path to building a winning roster.
“We feel like this can be a niche for us,” Collins said. “A lot of people are going straight transfer. We feel we can be a place that gets our own, develops our own, retains our own.”