Chris Collins and Northwestern players are always talking about how their tough losses this season are a part of "the process." That process is poorly defined, tough to quantity and, ultimately, very vague. But it's an easy word to classify a 10-game losing streak under, which is why it has been this program's buzzword of the year.
Sunday afternoon, at Welsh-Ryan Arena, that process finally produced the result this team has been searching for since its conference-opening win at Rutgers on Dec. 30. The Wildcats' win over Iowa was their first in a month-and-a-half, and it improved their record to 11-14 overall, and 2-10 in the Big Ten.
Star freshman Bryant McIntosh scored 18 points and dished out four assists to just one turnover along with making a bunch of late, clutch free throws. Junior Alex Olah grabbed 13 rebounds, many of which were late in the second half and in overtime. Freshman Scottie Lindsey blocked three Iowa shots and also helped out on the glass, collecting six boards. Sophomore Sanjay Lumpkin arguably took three points off the board for the visitors with two hard fouls in the extra period. Junior Tre Demps hit four threes for 16 points. Sophomore Nathan Taphorn returned from injury to hit an enormous triple in the final minute of regulation.
All of those players, along with some others, will be around for Northwestern next year. And will have to contribute in 2015-16 like they did tonight. If they can, Northwestern can make noise in the Big Ten. That's why, even though NU is just 2-10 in conference play so far, there was so much positivity from Collins, Olah and Demps after the game.
"Today was a special win," Collins said. "Sometimes [the basketball gods] are really harsh to you and sometimes they can be good to you when you deserve it."
He also echoed the idea of the win being a team-based one, with the group contributions being above the individual. "If you look at everyone who played in this game, everyone made a big play to help up win."
For a team that has gone through a brutal stretch, the victory seemingly lifted an enormous weight off everyone's chest, even when it felt like Iowa was going to take back the lead.
"We stayed positive [even after Jarrod Uthoff's shot to send game to overtime]," Olah said. "We're not gonna let this go, we got far so we're gonna finish it."
Clearly, the team was sick of not having won a game in 2015. Even though the NCAA Tournament or any sort of postseason play is basically out of the equation for NU, these guys are still playing for the seniors on the team (JerShon Cobb, one of the team's three seniors, was out with a foot injury) as well as for their coach, whose patience with his young team finally paid off today.
Perhaps, it was fitting, then, that Northwestern's big breakthrough came against Iowa and coach Fran McCaffery, whom Collins has known since he was a ballboy for the University of Pennsylvania team--while his dad, Doug, was playing for the Philadelphia 76ers--that McCaffery played for in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"I have an amazing amount of respect for Coach McCaffery," Collins said. "I've known him since I was a kid. He was very close with my dad when my dad was playing for the 76ers. They worked out a lot together and I've admired the way he has built his program... It's been a model that I try to follow, the kind of kids they've recruited, how they've developed and how they've fought."
He went on to say how he envisions Northwestern succeeding in a similar vein as Iowa has in recent years, even though the Hawkeyes have only made one NCAA Tournament since McCaffery's 2010 arrival in Iowa City.
Still, the message holds true, as McCaffery has brought once cellar-dwelling teams such as Lehigh, UNC-Greensboro and Siena to the tourney. In Collins' eyes, why can't Northwestern do the same?
With today's win, along with the returners for next year and the recruits coming in, the Wildcats are well on their way, even if that way is winding, confusing and, ultimately, unknown.