When you cover a lovable loser like Northwestern, you become uncomfortably accustomed to close defeats in Big Ten play.
In the past two seasons, Northwestern football is a combined 4-12 in Big Ten play. The basketball team hasn't been any better, posting a combined conference record of 7-18 over the past two years. I'll do the calculus for you: in the last two years of football and basketball conference play, Northwestern's teams are 11-30. Yikes.
These 30 losses can be categorized into three distinct subsets, and we've all witnessed Northwestern suffer through each kind multiple times.
The first type of defeat is those in which you are simply outclassed; when the opponent is far superior and the game is over before it ever really started. A good example was this year's game against Wisconsin -- Northwestern needed to play its absolute best and catch Wisconsin on an off day to have any chance of winning. When Northwestern started the game cold and Wisconsin's Sam Dekker couldn't miss, even if he were blindfolded, it was clear that the final result wouldn't be close. The football team's loss to Nebraska is another personification of this type of loss.
After those games, there's not much you can do but shrug your shoulders. When you're soundly beaten by a team that's better than you, it's somewhat easy to swallow. Coaches of the losing team often praise the victors as a model of what they want their program to become. No one realistically expected you to win, so, as my father so often told me, when you expect nothing and get nothing, you're satisfied.
The second type of loss comes in close games that come down to the wire. In this variation, the opposing team makes more plays down the stretch than your team does and for that reason, they escape with the victory. These games often feature a big-time performance from a star player who takes over the game when his team needs him most. Think of last week's game against Ohio State. It was a close game throughout, but when push came to shove, it was Ohio State -- more specifically D'Angelo Russell -- who played better down the stretch. Last year's loss in football to Ohio State was another example.
These losses are tougher to deal with than the blowouts because, quite simply, you were very close to coming out victorious. A couple plays here, a couple calls there and the outcome could have been entirely different. But when you're a team like Northwestern, whose main goal on the season is to develop its young players and move closer to establishing a winning culture, these losses are encouraging. The fact that the team was able to match Ohio State play-for-play and had a legitimate chance to win in the end is a sign of progress, a sign that Northwestern is headed in the right direction.
And then there's the last type of loss, the ones that are so profoundly hard to swallow, that often ruin your day and, in the most extreme cases, your week. These are the games that you give away, where it was your mistakes -- not the other team's successes -- that were the key ingredients in the loss.
The Hail Mary From Hell against Nebraska in 2013 comes to mind. And so does Sunday's collapse against Maryland. While Maryland took advantage of Northwestern's mistakes, the Terps wouldn't have had any chance if Northwestern didn't give them every opportunity to win the game.
Sunday's debacle seemed to happen in agnozingly slow motion. Up 11 with 3:28 to go, it seemed as though Northwestern was headed for the upset. The Wildcats were breaking Maryland's full court press with relative ease, giving no indication of the sloppy play that would ensue.
But then the offensive rebounds started. The turnovers followed. All the sudden, a loss was staring Northwestern in the face.
The rest, as I'm sure you know, is the latest chapter in the seemingly never ending book of heartbreaking Northwestern defeats.
Yes, there were positives from yesterday's game. Yes, Northwestern basketball is headed in the right direction and the future looks bright. But none of that made last night any more tolerable for Northwestern fans.
When your team gives away a game, it's going to be tough. When your team gives away an upset that would have likely been the highlight of the season, it hurts.
It hurts like hell.