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Northwestern guard Boo Buie (0) celebrates as he walks off the court

Northwestern guard Boo Buie (0) celebrates as he walks off the court after an NCAA college basketball game against Minnesota in Evanston, Ill., on March 9, 2024.

Nam Y. Huh

‘Best player to play at Northwestern': How Boo Buie helped redefine NU basketball

Sometimes, on-court performance alone isn’t enough to lift a downtrodden program. The sheer dominance of a player’s skill set can be enough to instill confidence, but it isn’t enough to change a program long-term.

The exception may be Northwestern guard Boo Buie, the anchor of a team that had finished 13-19 overall and 4-16 in the Big Ten the season before he came to Evanston in 2019. With a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth likely coming for the Wildcats despite a 70-61 quarterfinal loss to Wisconsin on Friday in the Big Ten Tournament, Buie soon will be leaving a program he had a heavy hand in turning around. The Wildcats (21-11, 12-8) already had tied their single-season record for most conference wins in a season.

“Boo has had a major impact on the program, and I think he is the best player to ever play at Northwestern,” former Northwestern forward Pete Nance told the Sun-Times. “It’s not only points, it’s the accomplishments, tournament appearances.”

When Buie broke the Northwestern scoring record in the Feb. 23 win against Michigan, Nance tweeted that Northwestern should “Get zero in the rafters!”

Former Wildcats forward Billy McKinneywas the first athlete in school history to have his jersey retired. Teammates know McKinney’s impact on the program but believe that Buie should be held in a similar regard.

“I love Billy, he has done so much for the program,” former Northwestern guard Chase Audige told the Sun-Times. “But in terms of just Northwestern history in basketball, I think he and Boo are two guys that definitely need to be up there.”

After Buie broke the scoring record against Michigan, all his teammates and coaches donned his trademark headband.

“Forget about the records — he’s given us a cool factor,” coach Chris Collins said after the 76-62 win over the Wolverines.

Buie’s game is thrilling to watch. He plays with a certain flair and self-assurance. His 31-point performance in the Wildcats’ upset of then-No. 1 Purdue illustrates the hope he brings to Northwestern.

For Buie, finding a place on the court wasn’t always easy, let alone helping transform a program that had made the NCAA Tournament once in its history when he arrived and hadn’t won the Big Ten since 1933.

“When I was younger, I had a tough time figuring out how to bring the swag to the team without doing too much or making anyone feel uncomfortable,” Buie said.

But he found his confidence through playing outside on New York courts. Buie learned the art of trash-talking by competing with players and older brothers [Taran and Battle]. He became fearless. Audige said he remembers getting heated at Buie because both were passionate about winning.

“There were times during games where me and him were yelling at each other because we’re just so competitive,” Audige said. Those are the teams that win, those that aren’t afraid of conflict,” Buie said.

He emulated the buoyant celebrations he observed on television and the video game NBA 2K and then unleashed it on the court.

“You can tell everybody on the team looks to Boo for everything,” Audige said. “Whether it’s confidence, poise, or if somebody’s feeling anxious, they look at Boo and they feel calmer and more confident themselves.”

Audige said that he’s seen the most growth in Buie’s leadership. Buie can lead because he didn’t leave, though Audige said he and Buie had chances to transfer.

Buie stayed because when he committed to Northwestern, he wanted to “come change the program.” With the all-time scoring record, the first unanimous first-team All-Big Ten team member in Northwestern history, countless big-time shots, and presumably back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, he’ll be on the short list of the best Wildcats ever.

“For Collins to have him at the head of the snake, it’s everything for that program,” Nance said. “It’s going to set a precedent for how the program should be moving forward.”

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