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Progress for Northwestern amid heartbreak in Ann Arbor

Whether or not Bryant McIntosh's shot went in was all but irrelevant.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Nothing could make Bryant McIntosh raise his head. Nothing.

Northwestern's freshman point guard had played another impressive game. He had run the show stoically, calming the Wildcats down expertly when necessary, and setting the tempo of the game.

But because of one split second, everything changed. Because of one fluke occurrence that shouldn't have happened -- that frankly doesn't happen -- everything changed.

"That kid is going to have the ball in that situation a lot of times in his career," Chris Collins said of McIntosh and the final play. "And he's going to deliver a lot more than he doesn't."

But that's the way sports work. On Saturday night, that thing that doesn't happen happened, and McIntosh stunningly didn't deliver. With the final horn imminent, and with his team down two, NU's freshman fluffed his free look at the rim. Even when Collins immediately went over to McIntosh to console him, even when NU assistant coach Armon Gates walked off the court with his arm around his point guard, nothing could force McIntosh to look past that final play and reflect on a great night of basketball. Nothing.

"That's sometimes what makes our game great," Collins said. "But when you're on the losing end of it and something like that happens, it rips your heart out."

McIntosh wasn't made available to the media after the game, and you can understand why. Emotions were still raw. He instead locked himself in prolonged embraces with family members in the bowels of Crisler Arena.

But in situations like these, maintaining perspective is important. Emotions sway opinions, and frustration can lead us to dissect the reasons why Northwestern seemingly can't win close games in excruciatingly excessive detail.

But does that really matter? In the moment, it's impossible to consider that. But taking a step back and reflecting, it might not.

There's one famous college basketball moment that's emblematic of this idea. In 2013, Butler's Roosevelt Jones beat Gonzaga at the buzzer after a ridiculous Zags turnover that never should've happened. Butler players jumped for joy and in the blink of an eye, students stormed the court. But amidst the chaos, Butler coach Brad Stevens, now of the Boston Celtics, had an extraordinary reaction. His facial expression never changed. When the shot went in, he simply turned, arms still crossed, to walk towards Gonzaga coach Mark Few and shake his hand.

After the game, Stevens was asked about his reaction. "Like I told [my team] after the game, if that shot didn't go down, would we be less of a team?" he asked rhetorically. "No. Now, because it did, people are going to say we're greater, but we're not. And is Gonzaga less of a team because they lost? Of course not."

Just as Jones' shot was irrelevant to Stevens, McIntosh's miss is irrelevant. It shouldn't affect our opinion of how he or the team as a whole played. Northwestern isn't an NCAA Tournament team in 2015, so McIntosh's shot wasn't going to make or break the season. And it certainly isn't going to affect future seasons. All it does is cloud our vision.

What's really important is how Northwestern played at Michigan. And for the third straight game, Collins' team played well enough to have a legitimate shot to beat a team that, on paper at least, is better. That's telling.

Collins loves to talk about this as a process. He did so again on Saturday. But in year two, it was also time to see progress. It was time to see substance. On Saturday night, we saw that. Or perhaps more accurately, on Saturday, we got confirmation — confirmation that Northwestern is headed in the right direction.

"We all want it now," Collins forthrightly said after the game. "I want it now. I want it now for all of [the players]. But when you're in a league like the Big Ten, winning is hard. You have to learn what it takes. You have to go through nights like this.

"It hurts," Collins said. "It hurts. But it's part of our process."

It's also unsustainable — in a good way. Rather than three losses, the past three contests were ‘either-or' games. They were, more or less, 50-50 games. One play here, another there, and Northwestern easily could've gone 2-1 or 3-0. Of course, solely considering this season, that doesn't matter — only wins and losses do. But in the grand scheme of things, it does.

And although we make too much of ‘learning how to win,' games like Saturday's are great experience.

"To have Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh in these environments right now as true freshmen, that's invaluable." Collins said. "We're going to look back on this when they're juniors and seniors, when we're winning big, and we're going to talk about games like this as being part of our process."

And when you see the emotion on Collins' face, when you see his passion, when you see how much he cares, it's hard to disagree with him.