The date is November 10th 2017. No. 19 Northwestern is beginning its season at its home away from home, Allstate Arena. Northwestern appears to be dusting off the rust and getting used to a new arena. The Wildcats are ahead 37-24 at the half. This teams looks like its picked up exactly where it left off last season. As the next 20 minutes pass, Loyola Maryland catches up to the ‘Cats, almost winning the game. Thanks to Scottie Lindsey, and his 26 points and career-high nine rebounds, they are able win by a score of 79-75.
Fast forward five days.
The date is November 15, 2017. Northwestern is back at Allstate Arena. Creighton is in town. The Cardiac ‘Cats are playing their third game in five days, and what a game it is. Northwestern can’t quite get all the pieces together, despite a 30-point performance from Vic Law and a 24-point performance by Bryant McIntosh.
No panicking yet, Creighton is a solid team and the Wildcats look poised to bounce back.
Fast forward another four days.
It’s November 19th 2017. #20 Northwestern is in Mohegan Sun, playing for a championship vs. Texas Tech in the 2017 Hall of Fame Tip. They’ve dropped one spot in the AP Poll, but the team is still rolling. Texas Tech goes on to blow Northwestern out of the gym by a score of 85-49.
This game would be the start of Northwestern’s spiral. Inconsistencies on defense were exposed against Texas Tech. The Wildcats looked different on the court- almost like they didn’t even know what was happening on the court or why it was happening.
That Texas Tech game changed Northwestern, for better and for worse.
The Wildcats would go on to lose to Georgia Tech on a buzzer-beater in the Big Ten- ACC match-up, beat Illinois in overtime, nearly beat Purdue on the road, almost lose to DePaul at Wintrust, and get blown out at again at Oklahoma before Christmas.
Combine a rocky December with an ending where Bryant McIntosh could have had a severe knee injury, and you’ve got the wildest start the Wildcats could have had this year.
It’s difficult to put a finger on where Northwestern has struggled. Early in the year, there was the case for Sanjay Lumpkin, Northwestern’s “glue guy” being gone. Northwestern also lost Pat Baldwin to a head coaching job at Milwaukee, so the transition between coaches may have been difficult on players. Some speculation even revolved around Northwestern having an NCAA Tournament “hangover” from last season.
What’s even more important to think about is the fact that this season is the first season in program history where the Wildcats had national attention before the season even began.
This program has been everywhere. It has come close to win-less seasons, and close to making the NCAA Tournament a few times. For these seniors and the players on this team, what they experienced last season was unlike anything they experienced in their lives.
For the first time in their college careers, they had expectations from outside of themselves. Maybe they thought since they had expectations, it would be easy to achieve them, given the number of players that were returning.
Regardless of that, wherever each of them had their focus individually, up until January 10, 2018, the team that played on the court did not look like the team that had been on the court the last three seasons. Parts and pieces were there at times, but the team didn’t have the consistency or the energy it had on the court in previous years.
That all changed on January 10, 2018.
The student section is back in town, the band has returned from winter break, and Allstate Arena has life in it. But looking closely at the game, the team looks different. Chris Collins and his staff appear to be ditching the ties this evening, going for a bit more of a casual look.
As tip-off begins, Northwestern plays defense first, and comes out in a zone. Minnesota looks surprised and lost. Northwestern hasn’t played much zone this season. A quick turnover by Minnesota and a Vic Law right corner three to start Northwestern’s offense begin a game that Northwestern would lead from the start, and never look back.
The team looks different on the court. They look like the vintage Northwestern team from last year. Bryant McIntosh is dishing out assists left and right, Aaron Falzon is heating up from three, and every player is knocking down shots. The offense has flow, and the chemistry that has been absent during parts of the season is back.
Nearly three hours pass, and Northwestern walks off the court with an 83-60 win, and a different look. Four of the five starters end in double figures, lead by Scottie Lindsey with 22. Not only does Bryant McIntosh break Pat Baldwin’s single game assist record with 16, but he has a double-double. To fill out his stat sheet, he finishes with 11 points, 16 assists, 5 rebounds and no turnovers in 34 minutes of play.
Previous to this game, Bryant McIntosh hadn’t played in a Big Ten game this season where he didn’t turn over the ball.
You can credit the change in defense, the coaches not wearing ties, Scottie Lindsey’s new haircut, Bryant McIntosh finding his rhythm, or maybe even Pat FItzgerald being in attendance. Regardless of where or who credit is given, its evident this team looked different against Minnesota.
Northwestern has an uphill battle ahead of them. The postseason is far away, but there is still time for this team to turn around and make some noise in March.
This team is far away from giving up on the rest of the season. They have faith in themselves.
Let’s have some faith in them too.