On December 30th, 2014, the Northwestern Wildcats picked up their first win of the Big Ten season, a 51-47 win over the Rutgers Scarlett Knights in Piscataway, New Jersey. In a game where defense shined, freshman Bryan McIntosh scored 17 points and led Northwestern to their first victory in a conference opener since 2005-2006. Yet while the future seemed bright with blossoming new talent in McIntosh and the added scoring of Alex Olah and Tre Demps, the reality was much more bleak. It would take nearly seven more weeks for the Cats to win another game.
In the span of their ten-game skid, the Wildcats were nearly able to pull off multiple upsets. An overtime loss to Michigan State accompanied one possession losses to Maryland, Michigan and Ohio State. These losses punctuated a streak where one made or missed shot could have won the game.
The frustration was undeniable and even head coach Chris Collins at times expressed his disappointment with being unable to close out big games.
"The last step we have to is to jump up to winning these games," Collins said after his team's narrow 68-67 loss to then #13 Maryland. "I know a lot of guys in that locker room are hurting real bad."
But somewhere along the line, things changed.
On February 17th, the Wildcats picked up their second Big Ten win of the year, a thrilling 66-61 win over Iowa on their home court. Once again led in scoring by McIntosh, Northwestern was able to outlast the Hawkeyes, even after Jarred Uthoff's buzzer beater three sent the game to overtime. This was one of the first times the Cats' resilience held up against a strong team.
After the game, Demps accredited much of the win to Chris Collins' ability to lead, especially in preparing the team to play the five minute OT period.
"I think coach did a great job of lifting our spirits up so we could battle for another five minutes." he said .
The Iowa win finally gave the Wildcats the confidence necessary to move forward. This marked the beginning of a four-game winning streak, capped by an upset win at home over Indiana. Demps dropped 23 and Olah added 17 in a game where Northwestern used a 13-0 run in the second half to take command of the game against the Hoosiers. Once again, we witnessed the leadership of Demps and Olah and were able to see everybody getting involved in the game.
After it was all over, Collins commended his guys for their effort and intensity on and off the court.
"It would have been real easy to say, `You know what? Let's wait `til next year," Collins said. "(But) we really wiped the slate clean. . (Now) we're playing well. The guys are confident. There's nothing like winning. It builds confidence."
So how did this happen? Its not every year that a 10-14 team rattles off four straight in one of the best conferences in the nation. The answer lies in Collins himself. As the head coach, he deserves as much of the responsibility for the Wildcats' success as anybody. His ability to galvanize a communal confidence around a maturing group of young players put them in a great position at the end of the season to make a run. Under his supervision, McIntosh and Olah have each made massive strides in their games and Tre Demps has developed into a go-to scorer in tough situations.
In their double overtime win against Michigan, Demps hit two huge threes; one to tie it at the end of regulation and another to send it to a second overtime. However, these are only a few moments in which he has shown his ability to step up when the team's back is against the wall.
Maybe confidence was just what the Wildcats needed. After finishing the season dropping three-straight, its back to the drawing board for Chris Collins and Co. Fortunately for them however, the pieces appear to be there to sustain the same type of run they had in the late 2014-2015 season. McIntosh will take on full point guard responsibilities with the loss of Dave Sobolewski and Demps and Olah return for their senior years. They also retain key contributors Vic Law and Sanjay Lumpkin. Northwestern is going to make some noise next year but maybe not in the most overt ways. A quiet confidence will lead them on.