INDIANAPOLIS -- Chris Collins had been feeling a bit dispirited. Things weren't quite going as planned. Through seven games, his Northwestern Wildcats hadn't been justifying preseason optimism.
"We won some games early in the year, but I didn't like how we were playing," Collins said. "We found a way to win those games, and I was really happy about that. But I just didn't like the way we were playing."
After Wednesday's loss to Georgia Tech, Collins appeared to be more discouraged than ever. He even used the word "dumbfounded" when assessing his team's performance. So for Collins, Saturday's trip to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse was about more than just a win or a loss.
That's why despite Saturday's 65-56 defeat at the hands of Butler, the word "pleased" was prevalent in Collins' postgame press conference. "Today I liked the way we played," he said. "I liked how we executed, I liked the looks we had, I liked the spirit we had."
"Today was the first [time I felt that] we had a team that I'm going to be excited to watch grow," he continued. "I hadn't felt that in the previous games."
A big reason for Collins' excitement was the play of a freshman duo. On the Hinkle stage, in their first true road tests, Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law rose to the occasion. After being removed from the starting lineup in favor of veterans Dave Sobolewski and Tre Demps, they responded.
"I thought it was the best Bryant and Vic have played in a couple games," Collins said.
Law especially stood out -- finally. The freshman struggled to find an offensive groove during the first few games of his college career. But Saturday, he found it.
"I thought he took good shots," Collins said of Law's improved performance. "He played active. He was athletic. He hit some big 3s for us when we needed it, and he can do that. The next step for him now is, we've got to learn how to get him to the foul line and be able to absorb the contact."
"I just threw myself into the game," Law said. "I was in a rhythm, and playing within the flow of the game. Shots just came easy. I was just taking shots when I had my opportunities."
Law was finally able to find a balance between aggressive and smart. He didn't try to do too much, but remained assertive, and while his stats were modest, he hit big shots late that almost dragged Northwestern back into the game.
McIntosh did likewise. Playing in front of a sizable contingent of friends and family, he penetrated on a consistent basis and stuck floaters from between 8 and 12 feet. He was actually NU's leading scorer with 12 points, all of which came on 2-point buckets.
But therein lies the problem. Northwestern hasn't yet been able to assemble a complete performance. McIntosh and Law were better, but JerShon Cobb and Tre Demps were once again poor. Alex Olah was underwhelming. The veterans came up short.
So while there were encouraging signs, a crisp team performance still eludes the Wildcats.
"It's part of the process," Collins said of Saturday's improvements. "This doesn't happen overnight. We played good, it just wasn't good enough. It doesn't mean I'm happy with the result. I'm competitive, I want to win. But I'm really pleased with how my guys played."
Saturday's verdict was inconclusive. There was certainly a rejuvenated positive energy about the team, and the Wildcats hung with a very solid Butler team for 38 minutes. But in the end, shortcomings were still very evident. Major questions became even more pressing Saturday. Were Demps' clutch performances last year a fluke? Are Cobb's days as a star over? Who can facilitate offense aside from McIntosh?
Sure, there were signs of progress. But those questions remain unanswered.