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The importance for Northwestern of avoiding a season-killing losing streak

Northwestern finds itself in the midst of a three-game skid with two difficult games coming up. If it wants to salvage this season, Northwestern will need to mitigate the damage.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON -- It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when a losing streak transcends the normal ebb-and-flow of a college basketball season and turns into a troubling trend. The best teams — those with aspirations of conference championships and deep runs into March — might begin showing signs of concern after even consecutive losses. And on the flip side, bottom-dwellers can lose chunks of games in a row and be shielded from panic by their low expectations and relative obscurity.

For Northwestern (15-6, 3-5 Big Ten), the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Thursday night’s game against No. 12 Michigan State (17-4, 4-4) presents a challenging chance to nip a three-game losing streak in the bud. In a season in which Northwestern is clinging to dwindling NCAA tournament hopes, it is the type of win its resume so desperately needs.

"There's a lot of opportunities for us to still get quality wins and get better and accomplish a lot of goals," head coach Chris Collins said Tuesday. "It's another great chance on Thursday against another top-ten team."

What makes the game even more intriguing, however, is its position in Northwestern’s schedule. After Michigan State, the Wildcats will travel to No. 3 Iowa to play one of the best teams in the country. A five-game losing streak is at best possible and at worst likely, a reality that would invoke nightmares of last season’s ten-game skid.

It all started with an overtime loss at, you guessed it, Michigan State.

Then came a five-point loss at home against Illinois. Then Bryant McIntosh missed an open floater that would’ve sent a game at Michigan into overtime, a miss that devastated the then-freshman. He's determined to use what he learned from last season to prevent it from happening again.

"I can't dwell on [the losses]," McIntosh said before practice. "I'd just beat myself up over it. I'll do that for the night we got beat now, but after that I'll have to let it go. That's something coach Collins has talked a lot about to me, just moving on."

After the Michigan game, D’Angelo Russell dropped 33 to carry Ohio State to a two-point victory at Welsh-Ryan. Then Maryland’s Dez Wells came out of nowhere to make a bank shot at the buzzer and sink Northwestern.

Five games lost by a combined 17 points…and five more consecutive losses would follow. Last year’s streak ripped the life out of a once-promising season, and the sheer volume of heartbreaking defeats made it particularly hard to swallow.

Northwestern has already narrowly missed a chance for a signature win at Maryland and followed that performance with its worst of the year, a 30-point loss to Indiana that wasn’t even that close.

If there was one positive from the Indiana game, it was the resurgent play of seniors Alex Olah and Tre Demps. Olah looked as good as he has since going down with his foot injury, scoring 19 points on a hyper-efficient 9 of 12 from the field. Demps, marred in a miserable shooting slump, managed 17 points and made at least 50 percent of his shots for the first time since a Dec. 21 win over Sacred Heart.

Last year’s team was devoid of seniors who consistently played significant minutes. But this year’s edition has Olah and Demps, both of whom have seen significant minutes in each of their four years in Evanston. Their leadership is crucial in keeping spirits up in trying times like these.

"That's kind of our job, to keep spirits up," Olah said. "We have to make sure we play hard in practice, we can't be down. It's just a couple bumps in the road...we learn from the past, and we try to not make those same mistakes again."

Thursday night will be an indicator as to where exactly this team finds itself at this crucial point in the season. Will Northwestern be able to bounce back from the blowout in Bloomington and kill the losing streak at a manageable three games? Or will that fourth loss pile on, with a trip to Iowa looming ominously?

If this team is to return to the trajectory Collins fancies, they'll need to avoid the type of season-killing losing streak that doomed last year's squad.