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Bryant McIntosh has become 'the guy' for Northwestern... and he knows it

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Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON — It's 3 a.m., and Bryant McIntosh can't sleep.

He sits up straight in a chair, enveloped by silence. His mind races. It swerves around a ball screen. It knifes into the lane. It sees a defender out of position, and darts to the three-point line.

Then he hears a voice. "What are you doing?" it says. It's a valid question.

The voice is that of Gavin Skelly, McIntosh's freshman year roommate. Skelly is confused. He's been sleeping, but just woke up. And McIntosh is just sitting there, staring blankly.

"I run the game through in my mind. I don't have to watch it. I can recall plays. In my head, I'll watch it two or three times."-Bryant McIntosh

"I run the game through in my mind," McIntosh says. "I don't have to watch it. I can recall plays. In my head, I'll watch it two or three times. I'll just sit there."

Occasionally he'll be tapped on the shoulder or nudged, and only then will he snap to the present. Or he'll just be left alone. Skelly became a regular guest at teammates' apartments last year. Sometimes McIntosh's girlfriend will question him. "Uh, just thinking about the game," he'll explain.

In so many ways, that's the perfect explanation. McIntosh, like any successful point guard, is a thinker. "That kid knows basketball like a coach," Skelly says. "I would put him right up there with coach Collins."

"He's just so smart," McIntosh's father, Scott, says of his son. "He's so much smarter than most people his age when it comes to basketball."

Bryant's intelligence is no mistake. Scott started him young. A varsity assistant coach, he would take toddler Bryant to his practices and put a ball in his hands. He taught him to shoot on a Little Tikes hoop. A few years later, rather than play board games, preschooler Bryant and Scott would sit down with a dry erase board and talk situational basketball. Long before he learned his multiplication tables, Bryant diagramed basketball plays on his bedroom door.

Northwestern's star sophomore point guard is still that same 5-year-old kid, he's just the 21-year-old version of him. Basketball still consumes his life. When he returned home over the team's brief holiday break, Wildcat head coach Chris Collins instructed him to stay out of the gym. Bryant, of course, went with Scott to shoot. In his first game back from break, he scored a career-high 33 points against Loyola (Maryland).

"He's been that way since first grade," Scott says. "Basketball is always on his mind."

***

It's 2 p.m., and Bryant McIntosh is in the zone.

It's late February, 2015, and 45 minutes before the last of McIntosh's teammates will join him for the beginning of practice. He stands on the practice court alone at the top of the key. Several pairs of eyes hone in on him. A machine that automatically collects rebounds and flings balls back to the shooter is set up at one basket. McIntosh keeps it busy.

Over and over, he steps into shots. It's just him and the machine. Over and over, the net ripples. Over and over, McIntosh has the same stoic reaction. He steps back, bends his knees, and puts himself on repeat.

At one point, he makes more than 20 in a row. And that's nothing special. He's made more than 40 before. But he seems reticent to brag about it.

"Be a dick on the floor."   -Doug Collins' advice for Bryant McIntosh

Last year, as a freshman, that's who Bryant McIntosh was. He wasn't outspoken. He was businesslike and determined, and even confident, but not boisterously so. "He's never going to be a boisterous guy," Collins says. McIntosh was just himself, and didn't try to be anything more.

But no matter how good the Greensburg, Indiana native was as a freshman, McIntosh and Collins both knew that had to change. The two are similar in many ways. "I think we're wired the same way, the way we think the game, the way we were brought up, the way we believe," Collins says. McIntosh says the two have started to finish each other's sentences. But in one crucial way, they're different. "I would like him to be a little bit cockier," Collins says. "That's what I was."

It's who Collins's father, former NBA player and coach Doug Collins, was too. "It's something Doug talks to me a lot about, having a cockiness," McIntosh said. "He thinks sometimes I'm too passive." Doug tells McIntosh to "be a dick on the floor."

McIntosh grew up rooting for Duke, the epicenter of cockiness in college basketball. When McIntosh is asked who his favorite Dukie was, Collins overhears the question and chimes in: "You're supposed to say me!" McIntosh shouts back: "I wasn't old enough to watch you!" Instead, McIntosh's guy was J.J. Redick, arguably the most loathed college basketball player of the 21st century. "And that's what I loved about him, how cocky he was," McIntosh said. "I'm not J.J. Redick, but I think I kind of have my own cockiness and swagger that will continue to grow as I get older."

***

It's 3 a.m., and Bryant McIntosh can't sleep.

Now it's 3:30 a.m., and Bryant McIntosh still can't sleep.

Now it's 4 a.m., and Bryant McIntosh is picking up his phone. The voice coming through it is that of his father. Scott is just getting out of bed, on his way to work.

About seven hours earlier, the two, along with other family members, had been locked in an embrace in the bowels of Crisler Arena. That night in Ann Arbor, Northwestern had taken Michigan down to the wire as a 10-point underdog. McIntosh had the ball in his hands, his team down two, with five seconds on the clock. He drove into the lane from the left wing. The seas parted. And he missed.

Moments later, McIntosh's head sunk. He then lifted his jersey over his head. Assistant coach Armon Gates grasped him around the waist, as if to keep McIntosh from collapsing. Collins nearly teared up in his postgame press conference when talking about his freshman point guard.

McIntosh's mind went racing that night. It told him he should've taken the three for the win. It scrutinized the missed runner at the buzzer. It told him he short-armed it. "It was a long night," he says with a sigh. "It was a long night." Even as late night bled into early morning, sleep was a foreign concept. "I can beat myself up pretty good," McIntosh says. "I struggle to let it go."

With Scott now in his truck on his way to work, and Bryant still wide awake in Evanston, son asked father a question: "What did I do wrong?" he wondered.

Scott didn't hesitate. "Nothing," he said.

Bryant had been 'the guy' his whole life. He'd won two Indiana high school state championships as 'the guy.' He had had the ball in his hands in that situation. He hadn't often missed.

"That kid is going to have the ball in that situation a lot of times in his career," Collins said of McIntosh that night. "And he's going to deliver a lot more than he doesn't." Collins sat McIntosh down the very next day and told him exactly the same thing.

"I feel old, honestly."   -Bryant McIntosh

McIntosh wants to be 'the guy.' He's not afraid of being 'the guy.' Last season, perhaps he just wasn't ready. Maybe he was unsure of himself. He didn't have the swagger, nor the bubbling self-confidence that comes with it. He also missed a crucial late free throw at Maryland, one of the team's 10-straight losses in January and early February.

After that Maryland game, somebody showed McIntosh a tweet. "It looks like Bryant McIntosh was picked off the schoolyard, like he's only 12 years old," it read. McIntosh says it became a running joke. "That's why I kept my beard on," he quips.

A year later, he doesn't need a beard. He's sporting a new haircut that adds years to his appearance, but he doesn't need that either. Now he's actually got age, and the experiences that come with it, on his side.

"I feel old, honestly," he said back in November. "I feel like I've been through so much in a short year." Even now, he looks back on that year as valuable. "The 10-game skid really made me grow up a lot."

***

It's 10:30 p.m., and Bryant McIntosh is frustrated.

He's downtrodden. His face is glum. He scowls, perhaps unconsciously, a second straight defeat still resonating with him, gnawing at his psyche. As he speaks, he leans against the podium and nods his head resignedly.

Physically, he's bereft. For two hours, he sparred with one of the most physical teams in the Big Ten, Ohio State. The Buckeyes jabbed, jammed, bumped, thumped and battered him all night. They would send reinforcements; McIntosh would have to look for his own reinforcements within himself. He never once left the game while it was still within reach.

With his backcourt running mate Tre Demps struggling, and top big man Alex Olah's foot ailing, McIntosh has become the ringleader, the emotional and tactical focal point of everything the Wildcats do. He's become for Northwestern what he was in high school; he's become what he wants to be. He has become 'the guy.'

But with the designation come pitfalls. As with any honor, it can be burdensome. "You put a lot on yourself, and you expect a ton of yourself," McIntosh says. "Nobody else could find their shot [against Ohio State], so I put a lot of pressure on myself to try and win us the game by myself."

McIntosh can be overly self-critical. Just as he hesitates to claim credit for success, he swiftly takes blame for failure. It's a part of who he is, a part that was readily apparent on that night in Ann Arbor, and a part that resurfaced most recently against Ohio State. His head dangled earthward after a late turnover. His hands seemed magnetically attracted to his hips and knees. His customary pep evaporated.

Being 'the guy' can be draining, especially for someone like Bryant. "He's a perfectionist," Scott says. "Instead of being able to shut down and go to the next day, he'll overanalyze it sometimes."

But Bryant is learning. During games, he'll often lift his jersey up over his mouth and talk to himself in an effort to eschew the nagging thoughts. By the time he stepped into the visiting locker room in Minneapolis on Saturday, he was back in the zone. "At the start of our next game," he says, "I've let go of everything." Failure, he says, "is not gonna be something that holds me back the next time I get that opportunity."

***

mcintosh flex gif

It's 7:24 p.m., and Bryant McIntosh is doing what all the muttered words under his shirt, the diagramed plays on his bedroom door, the offseason conversations with Doug, the late nights, the shots on the Little Tikes hoop, the photographic memory-based film sessions and the pre-practice shooting clinics are meant to enable him to do.

He's winning.

Six days after McIntosh came up short as 'the guy' against Ohio State, the ball is in his hands again. The Wisconsin Badgers, participants in two straight Final Fours, stand in his way. McIntosh is unfazed. He skips backwards when he gets a matchup he likes. As a freshman, he would've deferred. The ball would've gone to Demps, or to Olah. The new Bryant McIntosh doesn't defer. He shimmies, and rises. His pull-up three in the face of a Wisconsin defender finds the bottom of the net.

Now he becomes relentless. You can't get him out of attack mode. Now he sizes up his man, perhaps prematurely feeling sorry for him, and glides to the rim. He gets clobbered, but finishes through contact. As he bounds back down the court, he clenches his fists and brings them above his head. "I didn't really flex," McIntosh said postgame. He's lying. "I just kind of threw my arms up in a flexing motion. I didn't want to pull out the guns; it's a game." He smiles.

That's the McIntosh most people know. The humble, mild-mannered Indiana boy. The one who'll let his play do the talking, just as Scott told him to do so many years ago. But it's no longer who he is on the court. Now he bobs around, his face that of a stone-cold killer. He pumps his fist and twirls forcefully in excitement. He claps his hands, his stare drilling into Wisconsin point guard Bronson Koenig as Koenig walks the ball up the court. After a while, McIntosh's swagger prompts students to remind Wisconsin players of an inescapable truth, one of which everybody in the gym, including the Badgers, are now acutely aware. "You can't guard him!" they chant.

To be fair, not many people can. McIntosh is one of only three players in the nation averaging more than 16 points and 7 assists per game. "Forget about guards, he's one of the best players in the Big Ten," Collins said after McIntosh's 28-point performance. "He just absolutely led us to victory tonight."

Fifteen minutes later, McIntosh strides to the podium. This time, there is no downtrodden, glum look, no scowl. Instead, there's a smirk on his face. McIntosh knows he just played at an all-Big Ten level. And he knows there's no reason he can't continue to do so.

"I want him to believe he's that good," Collins says. "Because he is."