You could sense it.
Last weekend, after the win at Minnesota, there was a modest buzz emanating from the buildings of Northwestern's campus. This team was turning a few heads. It was making people care. You could sense it.
This past Tuesday, writers and cameramen flocked to Welsh-Ryan Arena for pre-practice interviews. The media recognized that they could be witnessing the start of something. You could sense it.
On Saturday, this time it was fans that packed Welsh-Ryan. Students flooded the bleachers behind either basket, some making the extra effort to get up "early" to attend the game. There was something refreshing in the air. You could sense it.
But then, in 20 second-half minutes, everything came crashing back down to earth, or so it seemed. Nebraska guard Terran Petteway and forward Walter Pitchford nailed a few decisive 3-pointers, and Northwestern, after generating so much positivity and promise, fell to a Nebraska team which hadn’t won on the road in over a year.
At some point, it was bound to happen. After the Jan. 25 loss to Iowa, Chris Collins said, "They [the Hawkeyes] turned it up to a notch that we just can’t get to right now." So even as this improbable run, punctuated by the win over Wisconsin, took shape, Collins was still aware that his team had its limits.
Perhaps those limits were a little less constrictive than everyone thought, but nonetheless, they were still present. And they were more apparent than ever on Saturday afternoon.
"It’s hard for us to score," said an emotionally spent Collins following the loss. "That’s not new. It’s been that way all year."
Yet there were moments Saturday – some fleeting, others more prolonged – when everything seemed to be right.
After Tre Demps knifed into the lane and poured in a 6-foot floater to complete an 8-0 spurt that tied the game at 44, Welsh-Ryan erupted. Elderly fans in the upper-reaches of the second level jolted to their feet, and urged their companions to do likewise. Purple-clad fans rose as one. Students roared, a combination of intensity and glee.
If you took a second to look around and let it all sink in, it was a pretty special feeling.
"It was awesome," Collins said after the game. "To see all the purple in the building, to see all the students there; it was loud man. When we tied that game 44-all, it was really cool to see the environment."
And it wasn’t just the atmosphere. Other things were right too. Expectations were justifiably high – a must for a program on the rise. People outside of Evanston were paying attention. There was even a top-50 prospect from the class of 2015 in attendance.
And there was a sense of urgency, one that was induced by visionary thinking. Collins’ sideline antics and his (at times) rueful postgame words exemplified just how much he wanted to win this game. He sees where he can take this program, and he wants to get there as soon as possible.
Saturday showed that right now, with this group of players, he can’t get there. The run of five wins in seven suggest he can get further than we originally thought, but, as he has explicated, there are limitations.
But Saturday also demonstrated that everything is coming into place.
"This is just the start of where we’re headed," Collins said. "It’s only going to get better."
Make no mistake about it, Saturday’s loss was deflating. "Are we disappointed?" Collins asked rhetorically. "Absolutely."
"[But] are we defeated? No."
Saturday was an exhibition of progress. It showed that progress won’t be as smooth as the previous week’s wins made seem possible. But it showed that if Collins continues to build it, they [the fans] will come. And if Collins continues to build it, it [success] will come too.