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Cardiac Cats: Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern starting to show signs they're for real

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After thrilling B1G/ACC challenge win, has Northwestern proved they are primed for a breakout year?

Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Bryant McIntosh got his redemption Tuesday night. After missing a layup near the end of regulation that would have given Northwestern the lead with 47 seconds remaining, he hit the go-ahead bucket to secure the Wildcats' 81-79 win over Virginia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC challenge. It was Northwestern's first challenge victory since 2011.

This marks the best start that the Wildcats (6-1) have had in two years, and it's not just just by luck. Northwestern as a team has been steadily improving over each game, and in particular McIntosh has shown incredible growth.

Coming into the 2015-2016 season, many knew that McIntosh was going to be good. The New Castle, IN native was coming off a solid freshman campaign in which he averaged 11.4 PPG and 4.3 APG, rated by many as a top five point guard in the conference. In BTPowerhouse's preseason rankings, McIntosh was listed as the 24th best player in the Big Ten. But few expected the sophomore to be this good.

Through seven games this season McIntosh is averaging 17.3 PPG, 6.2 APG while shooting 52.0% from three. Put simply, those are all-conference numbers.

Sure, these numbers may be amplified due to the weaker strength of schedule early in the year, but this doesn't take away from the fact that he has been able to exploit defenses and provide consistent play on a night-to-night basis. This stretch is perhaps best highlighted by his performance in Northwestern's overtime win over Columbia last Friday. Playing 43 minutes, he went for 32 points, including shooting 5-6 from downtown.

But luckily for head coach Chris Collins, it's been more than a one-man show. Senior shooting guard Tre Demps has stepped up big time, averaging 16.0 PPG while playing a team high 37.0 minutes per game. Alex Olah, the Romanian big man, is averaging 10.3 PPG and 7.0 RPG as well. Even sophomore Scottie Lindsey has been performing well, doubling last year's scoring average from 4.4 per game to 9.2. Everybody is getting involved.

Perhaps the most promising sign is that Northwestern is finally beginning to close out games. Last year, the Wildcats fell short on numerous upset bids and were unable to shut the door in the final minutes. In 2015, the Cats are already 2-0 in overtime and in their one loss to the #9 North Carolina Tar Heels, they stuck tough even through the end. In fact, the #2 Maryland Terrapins lost to UNC 89-81, just a three point difference than Northwestern.

So what's next? Virginia Tech posed the last big test for the Wildcats in the non-conference as the schedule is rounded out by games against SIU-Edwardsville (KenPom #327), Chicago State (#334), Mississippi Valley State (#349), DePaul (#152), Sacred Heart (#231) and Loyola-Maryland (#242). After that, Northwestern opens the conference season on the road against Nebraska, then travels home to host Maryland in what could be a surprising showdown. Well, surprising to some. But the Wildcats already know that they can compete, and with the best in the business.