What's behind Northwestern's rapid rise in Big Ten?

Northwestern has earned the right to come strutting out for Wednesday's game against Rutgers at Welsh-Ryan Arena (8 p.m., Big Ten Network).

Projected to finish near the bottom of the conference again after big men Pete Nance (North Carolina) and Ryan Young (Duke) exited via the transfer portal, the Wildcats are nearing the halfway point of the season as one of college basketball's biggest surprises.

Fresh off a decisive 73-60 home win over Illinois and an 84-83 decision at No. 15 Indiana, Northwestern is tied for second in the Big 10 with a 3-1 record and is 12-3 overall.

The Wildcats haven't cracked the AP Top 25 poll, but they check in at No. 32 after receiving 21 votes.

It's been quite an early ride, but veteran head coach Chris Collins isn't getting too carried away.

"We're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination," Collins told reporters after Sunday's gritty win over the Hoosiers. "We have a lot of limitations, but our guys really battle and they really fight. There's power when you have a together group. Everyone knows their roles."

Heading into the season, Collins knew returning guards Boo Buie and Chase Audige were the biggest keys to snapping a five-year losing streak. So far, the duo have been carrying NU.

After scoring 19 against Indiana, Audige ranks eighth in the Big Ten in scoring at 16 points per game.

Buie, who poured in 26 vs. the Hoosiers, checks in at No. 10 at 14.7 ppg.

"We know our guards are the ones that are keys," Collins said. "They have the ball in their hands, they make good decisions, and those other guys are just filling into their roles nicely."

Buie is a four-year starter and Audige is in his third year.

They have led the way, and junior guard Ty Berry (9.9 points per game), senior forward Robbie Beran (9.4 points, 6.1 rebounds per game) and 7-foot junior center Matthew Nicholson (6.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) have been key contributors.

"We have a lot of heart," Collins said. "Just really proud. I just love going into the locker room, you can tell when a team's really together."

Indiana scored 83 against Northwestern Sunday, but the Wildcats' defense ranks second in the Big Ten allowing 58.9 points per game.

"Our defense has been our calling card," Collins said. "Our offense has been the one that's been a struggle. Our defense has carried us all year long."

If NU can hold it together, a trip to March Madness is a definite possibility. The Wildcats have played in the NCAA Tournament only once in school history - 2017.

"Our guys have goals," Collins said. "They want to play meaningful games when it matters in late February and March."

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