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Bryant McIntosh is the straw that stirs Northwestern’s drink

He needs to play up to his ability if the Wildcats are going to the tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON — While it was Gavin Skelly’s dunk that sent the partisan Welsh-Ryan Arena crowd into a frenzy with just over four minutes left in the first half, what set it up was the most encouraging sign of the night for Northwestern.

Bryant McIntosh’s slick bounce pass to a cutting Skelly was just one of the many great plays the junior point guard made in the Wildcats’ 89-54 romp over Iowa on Sunday night. With his shooting percentages down and turnovers up, McIntosh has struggled so far this season. But Sunday’s win just might prove to be a turning point.

“Our atmosphere tonight was awesome,” McIntosh said. “With [the pass to Skelly], I got the outlet and saw Gavin pushing up the court. He kind of made eye contact with me and I just tried to put it where they couldn’t get it.”

Entering the day, McIntosh was shooting 35 percent from the field (25 percent from three) and had a paltry assist-to-turnover ratio of under 2-to-1. His 20-point, 10-assist performance won’t make those stats look much better, but it should make Wildcats fans feel a bit more optimistic about where this season could be headed.

Chris Collins agreed, saying that “tonight was vintage B-Mac.” Collins added that McIntosh was under control and “had a great pep to his step. It was great seeing him have so much fun out there.”

McIntosh reached double figures in assists on three occasions in 2015-16, but he hadn’t done so this season before Sunday. He posted his first double-double since the home loss to Penn State last January 16th, almost a year ago to the day.

Collins also talked about how he and the coaching staff has worked to get McIntosh to simply have more fun on the court: “What we’ve tried to embrace with him is getting back to the joy of playing at this level.”

He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself on Sunday, as he was assertive from the tip, hitting his first four shots and making great and accurate passes. He also had his familiar floater from last season working again. He made three of them in the first half.

McIntosh ended up shooting a remarkably efficient 9 of 11 from the field, and he was 2-of-3 from beyond the arc. He also committed only one turnover, well below his season average of 2.8.

Up until this point, Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law have carried the Wildcats. Their outside shooting and active on-ball defense have made things much easier for a Northwestern team that hasn’t gotten much from McIntosh and had been without its only low-post presence (Dererk Pardon) for awhile.

But if this year is really going to be the season in which Northwestern makes the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history, it will be because McIntosh got back to being the effective distributor and scorer he showed he could be as a freshman and sophomore. Northwestern needs him if it wants to keep the pace as the conference schedule gets tougher.

According to Collins, even as McIntosh’s play on the court has suffered, he has continued to be one of the team’s leaders off it. To Collins, his point guard’s value goes beyond his numbers.

“Collectively, we’ve had great leadership from all the older guys [especially Bryant]. If you were at a practice or a film session, you’d see him always leading the guys.”

Prior to Sunday, McIntosh only really played well in the Wake Forest win and the Minnesota loss. For much of the season, he has tried to do too much offensively, which has actually hurt his play.

McIntosh is the type of player who needs to stay within his means, a style which contrasts with that of a guy like Isiah Brown, who is effective when he is overtly aggressive. You can tell McIntosh is playing well when he picks his spots offensively. That’s when his trademark floaters from the ‘Big Ten’ logo in the paint are falling.

The Northwestern offense just doesn’t flow as well when McIntosh isn’t taking and making shots. Late in the second half, when the Wildcats put Iowa away with a 28-4 run, five different players scored, four of which made a three, one of which being McIntosh. The ball movement was undeniable, and it only seemed fitting the run was highlighted by a McIntosh drive-and-dish to Pardon for a wide open jam.

“Seeing the ball go in the basket always helps,” McIntosh said with regards to how his scoring helps his teammates. “When I put the ball in the basket, it forces other people to converge which lets me create for others.”

That play was one he hasn’t attempted much, if at all, this season, but it felt like an embodiment of the confidence Sunday’s game could give him. Freed from the burdens of having to create offense for himself — thanks to the return of Vic Law and emergence of Scottie Lindsey — McIntosh is free to be pass-first and points-second.

For him, the scoring usually follows when he plays more like a traditional point guard. When he gets out of control in attacking the rim among the trees, it affects the rest of the game, and not in a good way. But when he gets his teammates — who are more capable from the perimeter than in years past — involved, the floaters and drives to the basket open up.

McIntosh’s resurgence may have something to do with a sit-down he had with Collins back on January 4th, right after the start of winter quarter. He said it helped clear his mind a bit and helped get him into a better state of mind considering his previous struggles.

Talking about his coach, McIntosh said Collins “has become a father figure to me.” Collins was also a guard during his playing days at Duke, and also experienced a dip in production during his junior season. But after regaining his starting spot for coach Mike Krzyzewski as a senior, Collins averaged a career-high 16.3 points and 4.6 assists.

Will McIntosh’s career trajectory resemble that of his coach? It’s possible, and if Sunday’s game is any indication of how the rest of the season will go for him, the guard from Indiana could be playing, and leading his team, right into March.