The Northwestern Wildcats will finish the regular season and Big Ten Tournament with an overall 15-17 record and an early round exit in the Big Ten Tournament to the Indiana Hoosiers. As we won't see the Wildcats going dancing this season, it is very likely that Chris Collins' squad will go dancing for the first time in history relatively soon. Though Northwestern went through a tough stretch of games this season with sub-par performance, it picked up some huge wins down the stretch and started playing like a team at the end of the season.
Though the Wildcats will lose seniors Tre Demps and JerShon Cobb to graduation at the end of this year, it will keep a number of effective players who will carry this squad into the next season. Second leading scorer Alex Olah will more than likely return to Evanston for his senior season as a Wildcat after averaging 11.7 points per game. Freshman phenom Bryant McIntosh will also make his return after an impressive season with 11.4 points per game. Northwestern will also look to utilize Vic Law as he finished his freshman season with an impressive 7.0 points per contest. Though the Wildcats have never made the NCAA Tournament, next season could be their year.
Northwestern played fairly solid in its non-conference schedule, finishing with a 9-4 record entering into Big Ten play. The problem for Northwestern was that it was unable to get a "good win" in this portion of its schedule. Northwestern faced a difficult stretch in which it played games against Northern Iowa, Georgia Tech, and Butler. The Wildcats faced this stretch after winning its first five games of the season against mid-major teams. The one scare for Northwestern was a 68-67 OT win over Elon at home. Regardless, Northwestern had some momentum heading into its difficult stretch, but what separates Tournament teams from NIT teams is the ability to win tough games, and the Wildcats weren't able to do that.
Northwestern lost all three, and the most frustrating of those would come to be Georgia Tech, a team in which the Wildcats should have been able to beat at home. A win over Butler or Northern Iowa would have sent the Wildcats in the right direction, but they weren't able to pull either one off. To make matters worse, Northwestern suffered a 13 point home loss to the Central Michigan Chippewas. Certainly Northwestern's non-conference slate of the season wasn't awful, but Chris Collins needs his guys to play at a higher level earlier in the season.
Northwestern was able to sneak past Rutgers in its Big Ten Opener, wining by a 4 point margin on the road. Just then, with a 10-4 overall record, it looked as if the Wildcats might have something going this season. It was always undeniable that this team had talent, but in the very next game, the Wildcats hit a wall. Poor execution, tough losses, and some bad luck led the Wildcats to rattle off 10 straight losses in the Big Ten Conference. Of those 10 losses, five in a row came by five points or less or in overtime. Northwestern was unable to finish off opponents toward the end of games, and a blown double digit lead against the Maryland Terrapins may have been the pinnacle of Northwestern's frustration.
Regardless, the Wildcats didn't throw in the towel after finding themselves in dead last in the conference. After an embarrassing 24 point loss to the Michigan State Spartans, Chris Collins decided to try something new with his team. He switched the defense into a 2-3 zone, started playing music during practice, and did anything he could to loosen his guys up and get their confidence going again. To his pleasant surprise, it worked.The Wildcats finished off the regular season winning four of its last six games. Of those four wins, the most riveting was the double overtime home win against Michigan where it seemed as if the Wildcats had lost the game on two separate occasions only to have Tre Demps lift his team to a victory with some big three-point shots. A strong finish to the season is just what the Wildcats needed, and they will look to carry this momentum into next season.
Big Ten Tournament
Northwestern's strong finish gave it something that seemed unthinkable just a few weeks earlier: a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. Northwestern clinched the 10 seed in the Tourney thanks to a road win over Minnesota that gave them the nod over the Gophers. The first game of the Tournament for the Wildcats was against the Indiana Hoosiers. Northwestern had beaten Indiana by 7 points at the end of February, but the Hoosiers proved to be too much the second time out. Indiana lit the Wildcats up from three point land with 11, and the Hoosiers controlled the boards with a 42-25 advantage. Northwestern was sent packing after a 56-71 loss.
Northwestern obviously didn't want to go out the way that they did, but they are clearly one of those teams that plays a lot better than what their record indicates. A first-round bye is clearly a step in the right direction for Northwestern, and in a manner of a couple of seasons, Northwestern could very likely be one of the top teams in the conference if they keep improving each season.
Although Northwestern will not play in a post-season Tournament, it certainly has some momentum to build on going into the off-season. A 10 game losing streak won't get you anywhere as far as post-season basketball goes, but if we see more of the Wildcats that we saw at the end of this year, then we may see the Wildcats in the NIT or even the NCAA Tournament next year.