Column: NCAA Tournament brings a fresh start for No. 7 seed Northwestern and No. 9 seed Illinois

Before Northwestern’s 2022-23 season began, Boo Buie and Chase Audige knew it probably would be up to them to bring the Wildcats back to respectability.

Big men Pete Nance and Ryan Young had transferred to North Carolina and Duke, respectively, and the two senior guards were forced to take on bigger roles.

“Once those guys left, it brought Chase and I together even closer and made us tighter,” Buie told the Tribune. “Just wanted to show everybody we can be the best backcourt in the league or even in the country. We just wanted to prove everybody wrong that we could win here.”

Buie and Audige indeed helped turn the Wildcats into one of the top teams in the Big Ten, winning 21 games and finishing in second place. They were rewarded for those efforts Sunday with the second NCAA Tournament invitation in program history.

Northwestern (21-11) received the No. 7 seed in the West Region and will face 10th-seeded Boise State in the first round Thursday in Sacramento, Calif. (6:35 p.m., truTV).

Northwestern made its first tournament appearance in 2017, when coach Chris Collins’ Wildcats lost a second-round heartbreaker to top seed Gonzaga.

The Wildcats will be joined in the tournament by seven other Big Ten teams, including Illinois (20-12), which received the No. 9 seed in the West Region and will face eighth-seeded Arkansas on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa (3:30 p.m., TBS).

The Illini earned their third straight invitation under coach Brad Underwood and also would have gone in 2020 had the tournament not been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After losing to Houston last March in the second round, Illinois returns to the tournament with a mostly new cast of regulars, including transfer Terrence Shannon Jr., an All-Big Ten first-team selection.

“I’m excited,” Underwood said of the opportunity after his team lost to Penn State on Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament. “This team can go as long and as far as they want to. We’ve proven that.”

Both Northwestern and Illinois are coming off tough Big Ten Tournament performances against the Nittany Lions, who made it to the title game against Purdue and earned the No. 10 seed in the Midwest. Now both Illinois schools will get a chance to start fresh. The rigors of playing in the Big Ten all season have tested them in ways that could pay dividends in March Madness.

“This is a hard league; I think you see everybody has a hard time winning,” Collins said after a three-game skid near the end of the Big Ten season. “It seems like everyone kind of has the same record. We keep beating each other. ... Our environment this last month has been incredible, and hopefully everybody will stick with us.”

Northwestern’s first-round foe, Boise State, earned an at-large berth with a 24-9 record. The Broncos lost to Utah State in the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament, suffering the same kind of shooting woes Northwestern experienced Friday against Penn State.

Boise State scored 26 second-half points and shot 27.6% from the field in its loss. The Wildcats shot 32% in their overtime loss to Penn State, and everyone had an off night.

“We’ve got to be better going into the NCAA Tournament — 31% is not going to cut it,” Collins said afterward. “Our four main scorers — Boo, Chase, Ty (Berry) and Brooks (Barnhizer) — shooting about 25% from the floor. You’re not going to beat NCAA-quality teams if we can’t get our guys going. It’s on me.”

The Broncos never have won a game in eight NCAA Tournament appearances — something even Northwestern can say it has done, even though the Wildcats didn’t get an invitation until 2017.

If Northwestern gets past Boise State, its likely second-round opponent would be No. 2 seed UCLA, which faces 15th-seeded UNC Asheville in its opener. The Bruins lost to Arizona in the Pac 12 title game Saturday.

Illinois may be the lower seed in its first-round game against Arkansas (20-13), but chances are many will pick the Illini when filling out their brackets. The Razorbacks had a disappointing season under coach Eric Musselman after starting out 11-1 before SEC play. They’ve lost six of their last nine games.

The Illini have had their issues as well, but they’ve also beaten some top nonconference teams, including UCLA and Texas, which earned the No. 2 seed in the Midwest.

If the Illini can knock off the Razorbacks, their likely opponent in the second round would be Kansas, the top seed in the West and the defending national champ. Underwood, who revived the Illinois program, would be matched against coach Bill Self, who did likewise in Champaign before bolting for Lawrence and becoming one of the most successful coaches in the nation and a Hall of Famer.

The Illini are under the microscope as usual. They have not made it out of the second round of the tournament under Underwood, losing to Loyola in 2021 before last year’s exit against Houston.

They’ll need to improve upon their showing in the Big Ten Tournament to avoid another disappointing ending. Matthew Mayer, one of their top offensive threats, scored seven points in the first 3½ minutes against Penn State and was shut out the rest of the night. Coleman Hawkins was the only one playing with the energy and passion the Illini needed to make up for their 3-point shooting deficiencies.

“We’ve beaten a lot of good teams in this league,” Underwood said Thursday. “I think there’s plenty there. It’s really hard to do night in and night out. We’ve built our program on how do you win when the ball doesn’t go in. That’s where we’ve struggled the most — there’s no secret we’re last in the league in 3-point shooting. And Matt’s a big part of that and Coleman’s a big part of that.”

Whatever happened at the United Center is now in the past. The journey begins anew this week for Northwestern and Illinois.

We’ve seen them at their best, and it’s up to Collins and Underwood to bring it out of them again.