by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
EVANSTON, ILL – On a superficial level, Northwestern’s takedown of No. 12 Minnesota at Welsh-Ryan Arena Wednesday night is an upset. It’s one of the biggest upsets of this Big Ten season. The Wildcats are unranked, with a 3-4 record in Big Ten play, plus a couple of particularly embarrassing losses (home to Michigan, at Minnesota, home to Iowa) deflating their season thus far. Minnesota, despite its three-game win streak, stormed through a brutal nonconference schedule and already owns wins over Michigan State, Illinois, Florida State, Stanford and Memphis. The Gophers are, with no measure of doubt, one of the biggest and longest and most talented teams in the country. But if you watched Northwestern over its last two games heading into Wednesday night’s tilt, the final outcome was not a huge surprise.
More like an expectation.
After crushing Illinois in Illinois on January 17, Northwestern came home to take on the No. 2 team in the country, Indiana. The Hoosiers prevailed, but Northwestern – after falling behind early on – showed uncanny grit and relentless toughness throughout the second half, when Indiana’s margin was cut to five and Northwestern teetered on its biggest win of the season. On Wednesday, the Wildcats simply took the underdog mentality that kept them in striking distance against the Hoosiers and delivered another sterling second half performance.
The Gophers tightened up, Northwestern built momentum as Jared Swopshire and Alex Marcotullio fronted a steely 1-3-1 defense and made big play after big play. When the siren sounded, and Minnesota players drooped their heads in disgust, the Northwestern student section flooded the exits. By the strictest sense, this was an upset. But if there was one message that rang true in the immediate aftermath of Northwestern’s 55-48 win, it was the impassive nature of it all. There was no court storming. Fans – students and bleacher partisans alike – breathed a collective sigh of gratitude. Nothing more, nothing less. The typical sentimental outpouring (the same wild celebration that went down on this same floor when Northwestern upset then-No. 7 Michigan State last season) of a major upset was absent.
The truth is, Northwestern saw this one coming. The most emotion you saw from any Wildcats player in the post game press conference – typically the place for sweeping optimistic platitudes – was a slight smirk from Reggie Hearn, long a deadpanning, detached, stoic individual in that setting. The Wildcats, for the most part, stayed mostly mum on the entire thing. As if beating the No. 12 team in the country, in the midst of a season characterized thus far by pessimism and laments over roster depletion, was all part of the process.
In fact, the main topic of conversation was Northwestern’s 1-3-1 zone defense, and how it forced Minnesota into 9-of-23 shooting in the second half and rattled sophomore point guard Andre Hollins into seven turnovers.
“It’s great to get a win at Welsh-Ryan Arena, I know that,” coach Bill Carmody said afterward, downplaying what this win could mean for Northwestern’s season going forward. That was it. That was the extent of Carmody’s praise. A home win – that’s all.
However much the Wildcats brush off this win as a procedural step in a long season, the fact remains Northwestern picked up its biggest and most important victory to date. For weeks fans and media types alike were subjected to blowout losses and fatalistic NCAA Tournament hopes. The second part, for the moment, remains true. Northwestern is not in line for an at-large tourney bid by virtue of one really nice win. The selection committee will need to see more.
The first part is fading into the abyss of the early portion of Northwestern’s conference season. The Wildcats, over their last three games, have exhibited the capacity to compete with no less than the Big Ten’s best. Conservative bracket projections have Minnesota and Indiana slotted for top-three seed lines, and Illinois will (barring disaster) merit inclusion by season’s end. The Wildcats aren’t beating up on league patsies – the Penn States and Nebraskas; they are going bucket-for-bucket with legitimate Final Four contenders. Through it all, Northwestern hasn’t flinched. This is a level of performance they’ve come to expect, no matter the opponent.
Starting the Big Ten season on a three-of-four losing track obscured Northwestern’s potential. When the Wildcats dig in, run their sets, stay home on defense and stay within the game plan, they can match – and, sometimes, beat – the best teams this league has to offer.
There’s an impulse to overreact to single games, whether positive or negative. This doesn’t touch on hyperbole or exaggeration. Northwestern just looks different. What we saw from the Wildcats tonight was nothing particularly groundbreaking; it was the same perseverance they showed in the face of Indiana’s potent offensive attack Sunday. That same mental edge was there again Wednesday night, there to overcome Minnesota’s 45-31 rebounding advantage, it’s stable of future pros and its immensely deep roster.
On the subject of Northwestern, Minnesota coach Tubby Smith agreed they were one of the scrappiest teams in the Big Ten. There’s more to these Wildcats than pluck or spunk. There is a quiet confidence emanating from the team’s leaders – Swopshire and Hearn in particular. It will serve them well over the rest of the Big Ten schedule, which – with the exception of Saturday’s game at Nebraska – doesn’t get any easier from here on out. Northwestern has road trips at Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State before postseason play.
The key to surviving that stretch – a murderer’s row by any stretch of the definition – is to maintain the same level of both intangible focus and tactical precision that has pushed Northwestern through its last three games. If the Wildcats revert to early season form, the next eight weeks of conference season will deteriorate quickly. But by the way they handled themselves in the post-game scrum, the calm, the poise, the measured realization of their accomplishment – it all points to a continuation of recent events.
Northwestern doesn’t see Wednesday night’s result as a singular occurrence. The Wildcats feel like they belong on this stage.