There is one important thing to take away from Northwestern’s 49-43 win over No. 23 Illinois on Sunday night. It is nothing strategic or analytical; this was an ugly game. It has nothing to do with Northwestern’s chances of qualifying for a postseason tournament. Or the oddly coincidental Land of Lincoln rivalry-related fact we tweeted out afterward. Or the Wildcats’ ability to hold Illini leading scorer RayVonte Rice to just eight points on 2-for-11 shooting over 31 minutes.
This was about Chris Collins getting his first conference victory as a head coach.
"That was a special night for us. Obviously, thinking of getting my first Big Ten win I never thought my team would have only 49 points," Collins said after the game. "I always liked to have 49 myself when I played."
Nobody will mistake Sunday’s win as an indication that Northwestern will start regularly knocking off top-25 teams, or that it can even finish with more than four or so (if that) Big Ten wins. This was a case of one decent team (Illinois, which ranks 61st in Ken Pomeroy’s team ratings) playing down to the level of a lesser opponent (Northwestern, which ranks 155th).
It helped that the Illini – who shot 28. 1 percent from the field and 21 percent from three-point range – turned in one of their worst offensive performances of the season. "Shots didn't fall that guys normally make," Junior guard Tracy Abrams said.
The Wildcats made just enough shots down the stretch, had one huge call go their way (the charge on Alex Olah with 55 seconds to go) and botched their press break one time too few (seriously, the Wildcats looked like they’d never seen a full-court press before. They were completely fazed) to allow Illinois to complete a late comeback. Northwestern’s late-game resolve was tested. Unlike in their loss to DePaul earlier this season, the Wildcats didn’t fold.
The ability to eke out victories isn’t worth anything if you can’t keep games close in the first place, and Northwestern won’t be able to in most of its upcoming Big Ten contests. It still boasts a negative efficiency margin in conference play – scoring 0.86 points per trip and allowing 1.13, both league-worsts – and is probably less talented than every team it will play the rest of the season. Collins should savor this victory, because there probably won’t be many more over the next two months.
Ken Pomeroy projects the Wildcats will win three more games before the conference tournament. That seems reasonable. Northwestern can beat Purdue, Nebraska and Penn State at home, matchups Pomeroy gives the Wildcats 51, 50 and 55 percent chances of winning, respectively, if it mucks up the game and brings as much effort as it did Sunday night.
Viewing this win as some sort of a turning point, or an occasion for re-assessing whether Northwestern can make the NCAA Tournament, is misguided. Northwestern is a bad team with one Ok win that, based on Illinois’ current trajectory, might not look anywhere near as good at the end of the season as it does now.
You need to look at this win with a level-headed perspective. It was an emotional, big-weight-off-your-shoulders kind of moment for Collins. It will help erode some of the negativity surrounding a team most expect will finish the season with around the same number of conference wins (4) it notched last year. It will give the five recruits committed to the Wildcats some faith that the situation they’re stepping into next season won’t be quite as dismal as it might have once seemed. It might even encourage a large enough portion of the Wildcats’ mostly apathetic fan base to prevent opposing Big Ten teams’ fans from turning Welsh-Ryan Arena into a de facto neutral court site. It will dissuade me from writing posts like this.
Those are all positive things. But Sunday’s win shouldn’t be confused as a taste of what’s to come. Northwestern isn’t going to win many games this season. No. 5 Michigan State comes to town Wednesday night. Let’s see how the Wildcats respond. The last time they hosted Michigan State…this happened.