By Chris Emma-
EVANSTON (CBS) — The Northwestern Wildcats just had their hearts ripped out again, this time by Iowa.
A week ago Sunday, the Wildcats gathered in the huddle after the Hawkeyes’ Jared Uthoff drilled a contested 30-footer to force overtime. Northwestern’s upset bid seemed thwarted. Coach Chris Collins caught a fresh breath, gathered himself and offered encouragement.
“We’re going to win,” Collins told his Wildcats in the huddle. “We’re going to win. We’re going to win. We’re going to win. We’re going to win.”
They began repeating it.
“We’re going to win,” the players said. “We’re going to win. We’re going to win.”
And Northwestern did, backing the exuberant confidence. It outlasted Iowa in overtime to snap a 10-game skid. It was a much-needed victory for the struggling Wildcats, so desperate for something to celebrate in a season filled with heartbreaking losses. They doused Collins with water in the locker room, with no regard for his swanky suit.
In a rebuilding season, the Wildcats were so close to many moments to cherish. Tre Demps missed the game-winner in a loss Michigan State. Maryland’s Dez Wells hit the go-ahead putback for a stunning comeback — or Northwestern collapse — in College Park. Bryant McIntosh missed the easy layup that lost the game to Michigan.
An older, better team would’ve overcome the hostile road crowds and held the late lead. Northwestern couldn’t do it, at least then.
Last Sunday’s victory over Iowa was a feel-good occasion, but Wednesday’s win at Minnesota was another sign that Northwestern is maturing. Facing the same raucous road crowd and a fast-paced, high-stress tempo, the Wildcats held off the Golden Gophers and earned a vital victory.
“We’ve learned from that,” freshman forward Vic Law said. “With experiences like that and experiences like Michigan State, Michigan, those games we should’ve won early where we had them so close, it helped us win games later like this.”
To cap off a big week, Northwestern returned home to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday and dominated Penn State to the tune of a 60-39 win. It marked the fewest points the Wildcats had surrendered since, coincidentally, holding the Nittany Lions to 39 points nearly 10 years to the date.
Tic-tac-toe, three in a row. Looking at the big picture, it’s a statement that these Wildcats are improving. They’re moving past the growing pains toward maturation.
“We’re definitely getting better,” senior point guard Dave Sobolewski said. “Our confidence is coming along.”
A season ago, Collins’ first in Evanston, Northwestern reinvented itself around a grind-it-out style of basketball that saw stifling man defense and slow, careful offensive possessions. It wasn’t pretty but allowed an undermanned team to be competitive. This season has been a whole new challenge.
Northwestern has four freshmen playing meaningful minutes in Big Ten play, with rookie point guard McIntosh bearing the biggest load on his shoulders as the floor general. South Holland native Vic Law, just 185 pounds, has to battle with bigger players like Michigan State’s Branden Dawson.
It’s unfair, but this is what growth entails. Collins knew what he was getting into when leaving Mike Krzyzewski and Duke for Northwestern.
After getting blown out by the Spartans on Feb. 10, Collins hit the reset button on the season. Northwestern was 0-0 in his mind.
Collins committed to winning in part with a 2-3 zone, allowing junior center Alex Olah to better utilize his 7-foot frame with the help of the Wildcats’ wings. Their guards cut off passing lanes at the top of the key, and Northwestern is now forcing turnovers and containing an opposing offense with success.
“Call me Boeheim Jr.,” Collins joked.
Before this, Northwestern could only counter its opponents’ styles of play while holding on for dear life. It was difficult to work offensive sets when Maryland came crashing down with an imposing full-court press and a packed house on its feet to boot.
Now, Northwestern can handle whatever its opponent throws, while holding its own. The Wildcats’ maturation has shown.
“They’re growing, they’re improving,” Collins said. “I think everybody can see that. It’s great to be in the present to get some wins, but it’s also exciting for me to see a future.”
Focusing on what matters, Northwestern is closer to that fruitful future. Perhaps it plays in the CBI this March, a reward for staying the course in a season of adversity. But Collins was brought in to lead the Wildcats where they’ve never been before, a stage he’s been on many times with Duke: the NCAA Tournament.
Collins is guiding Northwestern through its growth and toward better days ahead. The Wildcats are working for sustained success, and they’re on the right path with the ideal leader.
“It’s not about having just one good team that goes to the NCAA Tournament or whatever; my staff and I are here to build a program,” Collins said. “In order to build a program, you have to have young pieces to build around, and then you have to get old.”
With each win, it’s becoming clear that the young Wildcats are growing up.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.