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Wisconsin 65, Northwestern 50: Badgers help throw uncertainty into Chris Collins' "process"

The gap between Wisconsin and Northwestern remains wide. And as it does, so does another, far more important gap.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON, Wis. - Men against boys. Saturday's game between Wisconsin and Northwestern was men against boys.

Following NU's 65-50 loss at the Kohl Center, Chris Collins didn't actually use those exact words. But maybe that's because he's used them all too often after past losses. They've become integral parts of his bingo card. And anyway, Collins didn't need to use them. The game spoke for itself.

Right from the jump, Wisconsin toyed with the Wildcats. The Badgers were calm, collected and sharp. Northwestern was anything but.

"Coach said he thought we came out and played scared," center Alex Olah said after the game.

Wisconsin opened the game on a 21-4 run and never looked back. Sure, Northwestern played the Badgers relatively evenly for the remaining 35 minutes, but that's irrelevant. Saturday's game was no contest. It was a first round knockout.

"The first four or five minutes was really where the game was won," Collins admitted.

Those four or five minutes also demonstrated that Northwestern and Wisconsin are figuratively miles apart. That's by no means a revelation. But it became increasingly clear Saturday.

And furthermore, there isn't just a gulf between the two teams physically, as Collins pointed out with his "men against boys" analogy after last month's drubbing by Wisconsin. The Badgers were on an entirely different level in many ways Saturday. They were better prepared. They executed better within their system. They were a step ahead mentally.

"You've got to be tough mentally and physically," Collins said. "They [Wisconsin] are extremely mentally tough."

Northwestern was at a disadvantage in every facet of the game. The gap between the two teams was vast.

But as Northwestern's losing streak drags on and on, we've been trying to judge how large a different gap is: the one between where Northwestern is and where it wants to--and needs to--go.

A couple weeks ago, that gap seemed to be shrinking. We thought we were seeing definitive progress. We thought we were seeing glimpses of what we could truly describe as ‘Chris Collins' Northwestern.'

But in the three games since, it's become clear that that gap is still very wide. Things have gotten dangerously close to returning to square one. Maybe it's just fatigue. Maybe it's a mental thing. Maybe it's the 'vaunted freshman wall.' But whatever it is, it's a tad troubling.

That doesn't make that previously apparent progress non-existent. It just makes it temporary and, crucially, unsustained. "Crucially" because as college basketball constantly reminds us, anybody can play well on a given night. Heck, Northwestern proved that last year. What teams strive for, therefore, is sustained success. And Northwestern hasn't yet found that.

Will the Wildcats eventually find it?

Collins remains assured. As the losses have multiplied, he has had to, time and time again, offer explanations for his team's struggles. He has urged patience. He has pleaded for positivity. And he did so again Saturday.

But whereas after the games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, positivity was justified, it's now a little less so. Then, it was based on evidence; now, it's based on hope.

And whereas after those games, the "process" that Collins talks about seemed to be at an advanced stage, that process now seems a bit muddled. After more dire losses to Purdue, Nebraska and Wisconsin, it has become tinged with uncertainty.

That uncertainty doesn't imply impending failure. Many of the reasons Collins brings forth to promote long-term optimism are valid. But after the last three games, that place to which Northwestern wants to and needs to get now appears to be at least a bit farther away.