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Indiana loss kicks off big offseason for Northwestern

Indiana's superior talent was very clear Thursday. Chris Collins knows that this is the offseason that that has to change.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- The talent gap was evident. Northwestern was outmatched by a pair of the Big Ten's best guards as its season came to an end in a 71-56 loss to Indiana in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.

James Blackmon Jr. poured in 25 points and Yogi Ferrell had 5 assists to go with 17 points of his own. They were above and beyond the best players on the court. And right now, that's the way it's supposed to be.

Every player in Indiana's starting lineup was an ESPN top 100 recruit out of high school. Northwestern's 2-3 zone simply cannot neutralize that kind of talent on a consistent basis.

The zone gives up too many open looks on the perimeter and enables offensive rebounding, which takes much of the game out of your hands and places it into that of the opponents. That's why Chris Collins doesn't want to use the zone long term. Instead, he wants to be winning one-on-one battles.

"Going forward as we go into the summer, we need to get back to guarding people at the level that you need to win against really good teams," Collins said post-game. "I thought this year our defense slipped a bit."

It's not surprising that the defense took a step back since the team has five freshmen, four of whom contributed significantly throughout the season. They are undersized, raw and have plenty of room for growth.

"I really feel our talent level is up where it's been, but now we have to develop," Collins said. "We have to get a lot stronger. We have to get a lot tougher physically and mentally, and then we have to develop our skills, everyone."

Northwestern's talent level has certainly improved, considering they brought in an ESPN top 100 recruit and a Big Ten All-Freshman Team nominee this season. With another top 100 prep star and solid recruiting class coming to Evanston next year, the trend should continue.

What's yet to be seen is how Collins develops the players he brings in and how his system evolves with new personnel. So far, he's done an excellent job with the roster he was dealt.

Alex Olah has gone from a clumsy 7-footer to one of the conference's most formidable centers. Tre Demps scores 12.8 points per game now on 42 percent shooting rather than 7 points on 38 percent from the field. And Nathan Taphorn no longer looks like the scrawny freshman struggling to find his jump shot.

The upperclassmen have shown what they can do. There are going to be high expectations for a senior class featuring Olah, Demps and transfer Joey van Zegeren. However, next season's results may depend just as much on the development of Collins' young guys.

"This is a huge offseason for our program," Collins said. "A lot of times you see the biggest area of growth from a freshman to a sophomore, and with five guys in that class, it's a huge growth summer for them."

Collins' process is still in the very early stages. He doesn't have any players that can survive on pure talent. None of the Wildcats can take over a game like James Blackmon Jr. or Yogi Ferrell, and there's a chance none of them ever will.

NU's talent may be improving, but it still lags far behind much of the Big Ten. This program has to rely on the development of its younger players to catch up with the pack. Given the gap in talent, it's incredible that Northwestern competed with the likes of Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana this season.

The Wildcats proved they can play, but they need to find some consistency. No team should lose 10 straight and follow that by up winning five of six. Looking at the roster, 2015-16 is Collins' first real opportunity to put together a complete season, and he's intent on doing so.

"We've got to make a jump," Collins said. "It's time going into next year."