Emma: Bryant McIntosh Driving Northwestern To Brink Of History

By Chris Emma–

EVANSTON (CBS) — Long before NCAA Tournament hopes filled Northwestern, there was nothing but promises and faith.

Bryant McIntosh still remembers today his first meeting with then-rookie head coach Chris Collins. After the Hoosier State product decommitted from Indiana State during the summer of 2013, Collins made him a priority. Little did he know the common goals they shared.

As it turned out, Collins and McIntosh were wired the same way. It’s what led McIntosh to Evanston, now the site of a great story taking place. They are two intense competitors who believed in each other and that they could make history at Northwestern.

“He had this confidence in him that allowed me to believe in him,” McIntosh said of Collins.

Collins arrived at Northwestern during the spring of 2013 after more than a decade on Mike Krzyzewski’s bench at Duke. As a player, Collins was Illinois Mr. Basketball coming out of Glenbrook North, was named a McDonald’s All-American and became a captain at Duke.

Coaching the Wildcats was a great challenge — the kind of task the super-competitive Collins embraced coming in. Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament, and he had to recruit with academic restrictions and sub-par facilities. All he needed was like-minded players to join his team. McIntosh was the floor general he wanted.

McIntosh bought what Collins was selling, picking the Wildcats over Purdue and others in what was surprising to many. He believed in what Northwestern could become, joining Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey and Gavin Skelly in a program-changing class.

“Really, all they were hanging on to was a vision, a dream,” Collins said. “There were no banners in here. There was nothing to hang our hat on with tradition. I was a rookie coach; I had never even coached a game.”

When Collins’ first class arrived at Northwestern, it was McIntosh looked upon to become a leader. He started 30 games as a freshman, averaging 33.3 minutes per game. Those Wildcats weren’t made to be a tournament team. They were learning how to win.

Struggles met McIntosh as he handled losing. Northwestern was 15-17 in his freshman season. The Wildcats lost games in heartbreaking fashion that season. During a game in Ann Arbor in 2015, McIntosh missed a shot at the buzzer that would’ve forced overtime. Northwestern would lose to Michigan, part of a 10-game skid.

His heart was seemingly ripped out after the game. Teammates tried to pick up his spirits. This was all new to McIntosh.

“It was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” McIntosh said. “It’s hard for me to go back to that point in my life, because it was a lot of pain. I don’t deal with losing very well. Looking back on it, I know that’s what’s led us to be this successful so far this year. Going through those pains is never fun.”

Collins felt the losing, too. It crushed him. His voice was soft after each loss continued to pile up. He struggles to draw the words to describe it. Collins kept speaking of the pride he felt in McIntosh and that young team.

“I had to lean on (Collins) a lot, because he had to continue to remind me it’s going to take time,” McIntosh said. “Winning is hard, especially at this next level. That’s something I didn’t know here. I was accustomed to winning. I knew how to win.”

Collins’ Wildcats went into Madison on Sunday without Lindsey, their leading scorer, and stunned the seventh-ranked Badgers in their own building. McIntosh played all 40 minutes, scoring a game-high 25 points while adding seven assists and rebounds. His desire to win was the difference.

Northwestern was coming off its first detrimental loss to their tournament resume, a 68-61 clunker against Illinois at home. The Wildcats undid that by beating the Badgers at the Kohl Center.

Consider this the most important victory in Northwestern’s history. It brought the program closer to its first NCAA Tournament berth ever. In fact, it was a stepping stone to a solid seed. Now, the Wildcats are 19-6, 8-4 in the Big Ten and looking to bolster their resume on Wednesday when they host Maryland at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Days later, McIntosh thought back to his belief in Collins and what Northwestern could become.

“There’s no true legacy around here,” McIntosh said. “There’s no jerseys hanging around here. Certainly, there have been great players. But there’s a chance to leave your own mark and build something that’s not around.”

Thanks to that belief McIntosh showed in Collins, there could be a lasting legacy building at Northwestern.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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