Chris Collins’ team is tired of the age-old narrative. For years, Northwestern has been a little brother-type program waiting for its first NCAA tournament berth. According to that narrative, the Wildcats will graciously accept any small, moral victory along the way.
Perhaps it has been that way before, but through five games, this year is different.
“This isn’t the old Northwestern,” sophomore forward Vic Law said after Friday’s blowout win against Bryant. “We’re really good.”
The “old Northwestern” isn’t a pretty one. The program has had three 20 win seasons in its entire history. The glamour and on-court success that surrounds other Power 5 schools has disappeared into a Tournament-less black hole around Evanston for decades. The program’s best-ever recruit was Law — a four-star whose run with Northwestern started with a wave of optimism: “When we make the tournament for the first time, there will be a lot of noise in Chicago.”
For Collins, just playing a quality team close — as his Wildcats did against Butler and Notre Dame with two and four-point losses — falls short of his team’s goals, even with the tough schedule they’ve had. Collins said he doesn’t think anyone in the country has played the level of competition Northwestern has faced.
“You’ve got to start winning these games,” Collins said. “It’s nice to play people tough, but we’re in year four now. It’s time to start winning.”
Against Wake Forest, a team that entered the game with a 5-1 record and expectations of its own, Northwestern proved it had the all-important mental toughness that often pervades press conferences. Mental toughness may be “coachspeak,” but it’s important. On Monday, Northwestern was tied at 51 with the Demon Deacons with 4:55 left before Bryant McIntosh scored 10 straight points to put the game away.
Teams that can win close games are a different type of good. Northwestern hasn’t reached that point yet — they could easily have beaten Butler and Notre Dame, and those losses may yet loom large — but Monday’s result was encouraging. With the talent that Collins has assembled, Northwestern should be good enough to win close games consistently, as evidenced by Monday night.
“Since I’ve been here, this is the most talented team,” Collins said. “We’ll see what they end up becoming as a team, but are they the most talented? Absolutely. We’ve never had this kind of firepower offensively.”
“Talent” is a general term. Most teams have some degree of talent. Northwestern had it last year with Tre Demps and, when healthy, Alex Olah. They’ve had it before with players like John Shurna, Drew Crawford and NBAer Evan Eschmeyer. But when the most talented players don’t always need to be their absolute best, teams reach a new level: They don’t necessarily live and die by the same one or two players.
Against Texas, Law struggled after a hot start to the season. He scored just three points, played 19 minutes and fouled out. But McIntosh dropped 20, Lindsey shot 43 percent from three and Dererk Pardon posted a double-double. Northwestern won by 19.
The next night, it was McIntosh who struggled. He shot an abysmal 3-of-18 from the field but Lindsey and Law combined for 32 points on 5-of-7 shooting from three-point land, all while Nate Taphorn canned four threes of his own. Northwestern came oh-so-close to beating one of the nation’s premier teams.
“Even the other night against Notre Dame, if you told me McIntosh would have the kind of line he had, that we would have the ball with 20 seconds to go with the lead — I don’t know if I would’ve believed that in the past,” Collins said. “But now we have enough guys, where when some guys aren’t putting it in the hole or aren’t playing well, other guys have their back. It’s nice to have options.”
On Monday, it was Law and Pardon who played poorly. But McIntosh’s 22 points, Gavin Skelly’s all-around brilliance and Sanjay Lumpkin’s defense picked them up in the win. Even Jordan Ash played solid minutes when McIntosh briefly exited after taking an elbow to the face.
Talent is one thing, but talent, confidence and depth is what Northwestern has been pining for since the inception of the program. Now, the Wildcats may finally be putting it all together. The team currently stands 46th in KenPom efficiency margin, already 22 spots higher than where it ended last season. More importantly, given the competition level, it shows that “the new Northwestern” has been no fluke thus far.
Welsh-Ryan Arena was louder on Monday than it’s been in a while. Lumpkin called Northwestern’s bench energy compared to Wake Forest’s energy “night and day.” McIntosh’s second half heroics electrified an often-dormant student section. In Collins’ fourth year, there’s finally a new feel to this season. Without Demps and Olah from last year, Collins’ first recruiting class has come into its own.
“We have a lot of guys that are starting to become vets now, like Vic, Scottie and Gavin,” Collins said. “They’ve been in college for three years now. They know what this is about, and they’re starting to show the kind of players they are. As a staff, this is what we envisioned when we recruited them. It’s fun to see their development really paying off.”
Even Wake Forest coach and former NBA All-Star Danny Manning took notice.
“I think Chris [Collins] is doing a tremendous job here building the program,” Manning said. “The way they play night in and night out is really impressive.”
Of course, Northwestern isn’t perfect. Big men like Wake Forest’s John Collins will pose a massive threat to Northwestern all year. Northwestern’s shooting has been inconsistent. This game had a few stretches in which Northwestern couldn’t buy a basket. Even with tonight’s 8-for-8 second half, McIntosh’s early struggles this year are a concern, though the hope is that they are now a thing of the past. And as much as we may try to ignore it, the Johnnie Vassar lawsuit and allegations against the basketball program stand as a massive elephant in the rafters of Welsh-Ryan Arena.
But just below, Northwestern’s on-court product is hitting its stride.