Northwestern has dealt with its fair share of problems this year: poor 3-point shooting, stagnant offense and a lack of depth are just a few.
However, coming off unexpected road wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Wildcats now face a new proposition: dealing with success.
Northwestern welcomes Nebraska to Welsh-Ryan Arena Saturday in what has become a more intriguing matchup than expected. Northwestern will look to nudge its conference record above .500 for the first time since January 2006.
But not too long ago, the mood was entirely different. “Sitting on the bus coming back from Iowa, losing three games in a row by 25-plus points, you have a tendency to lose confidence, to be down,” coach Chris Collins said Tuesday. “Three weeks later, to be 5-5 and in the top half of the best conference in the country, it shows about these guys in the locker room.”
That loss at Iowa on Jan. 9 dropped the Wildcats to 0-3 in the Big Ten and 7-9 overall. It also sparked talk of the possibility of a winless Big Ten season. But in the short time since, Northwestern has shockingly won five of its last seven games, and heading into Saturday, owns a share of fourth place in the Big Ten.
Symbolic evidence of the Wildcats’ recent success came Tuesday in the form of an individual honor. Senior co-captain Drew Crawford was named last week’s Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week. Collins called the award “much deserved.”
“It’s a great honor,” a stoic Crawford said. “But at the same time, it’s more about what we’re doing as a team.”
And what they’re doing as a team is staying grounded, and dealing with success.
“People know about us now, they know that we’re a tough team,” sophomore guard Tre Demps said. “But we’ve just got to take it one game at a time. We have Nebraska on Saturday. When you start [looking ahead], the natural thing to do is relax. We have to stay focused.”
Collins said, “We can’t lose sight [of who we are]. We’ve got to stay true to the formula that’s helped us win, and that’s going to be our challenge.”
The challenge begins Saturday against Nebraska. “They’re a hot team,” Collins said of the Cornhuskers. That is, until a Wednesday night shellacking at the hands of Michigan.
Nonetheless, Collins' words from Tuesday still probably hold true. “They’re going to come in here confident,” he said. “And we’re going to have to be ready to be at our best.”