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Northwestern basketball is all grown up

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The Wildcats continue to show the maturity and poise that only comes with experience.

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

Ten games.

That’s how many Northwestern lost in a row at one point in the 2014-2015 season, the first for Chris Collins’s initial recruiting class. It started with a January 4th beatdown at the hands of Wisconsin, a team that later made the NCAA title game. It didn’t end until the Wildcats pulled out an overtime victory over Iowa on February 15th. The team went nearly six weeks without a win.

In that losing streak, the Wildcats had a five-game stretch with the following results: loss by seven at Michigan State in overtime, loss by five against Illinois, loss by two at Michigan, loss by two against Ohio State and loss by one at Maryland.

Northwestern held late leads in four of those five. None hurt worse than the loss at Maryland, No. 13 in the nation at the time, when the win probability chart looked like this.

Kenpom

Bryant McIntosh played the finest game of his career up to that point and outplayed his opposition, Terrapin star Melo Trimble. Scottie Lindsey didn’t take a shot in 12 minutes. Vic Law Jr. hit one of his four shots in 13 minutes and scored three points. But it was McIntosh who was the scapegoat. The freshman, with his team up 65-64 with 29 seconds left, missed the front end of a one-and-one. Dez Wells scored 27.6 seconds later, and Northwestern went home with the most heartbreaking of losses, its sixth defeat in a row. The bully had stolen another lunch from the small kids. McIntosh scored 21 points and hit 10 of his 14 shots from the field.

But he missed his lone free throw.

“The kid is a brilliant player, man,” Chris Collins said post-game. “To come into this environment as a freshman, to play the way he did... I've told Bryant — I want the ball in that kid's hands... He just missed a one-and-one. It's just part of the game, but he's the guy I want on the line in that situation every time.”

If that miss doesn’t happen, maybe the ensuing losing streak could have been different.

But then again, maybe Northwestern’s 18-4 start to the 2016-2017 season and 7-2 start to the Big Ten slate — a start that has Northwestern in as good a position to make the tournament as it’s ever had — doesn’t happen either.


Two years later, Northwestern is all grown up.

In some ways, it’s literal. Vic Law walked in a 185-pound kid who struggled with bigger, stronger elite wing scorers. Now he’s 205 pounds and elite wing scorers struggle with him. He consistently draws the other team’s top player and usually shuts them down. Scottie Lindsey came in 175 pound and full of potential. Now he’s 210 pounds and that potential is being fulfilled.

In other ways, it’s mental. McIntosh, Collins’ hand-picked spearhead for the rebuilding process, knocked down five of his six free throws down the stretch in the Wildcats’ first win in Columbus since 1977. McIntosh has earned the trust of the fans and his coach.

Northwestern’s 74-72 win was emblematic of team-wide growth. The Buckeyes have physically dominated the Wildcats in the past two years, beating up on often smaller, less athletic Northwestern players. That is no longer the case. Law and Lindsey are athletic enough to fight through conference play. Even McIntosh has tossed on eight pounds since arriving. Dererk Pardon is the most athletic center Northwestern’s had in a while, and about a year after his first college game — remember, he was redshirted for the first half of 2015 — is now a top 60 player in the nation in offensive rebound percentage (60th) and block percentage (39th).

When’s the last time Northwestern’s had the athletes to compete in the Big Ten? The athletes weren’t there under Bill Carmody. Carmody’s Princeton system was in place to neutralize opponents’ athletic advantages, but the arrival of Collins scrapped that completely.

On day one, Chris Collins was out recruiting Law. He has had to remold not only his team, but also the program’s outdated culture. Law was the first man to verbally commit in early July of 2013. Near the end of the month, Gavin Skelly joined him. With Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey joining in September, the transformation was underway.


After pushing past Nebraska with a monster performance from Pardon, Northwestern faced against an Indiana team that had embarrassed Northwestern 89-57 last season in Bloomington. McIntosh, an Indiana native, with his family in the seats, was 2-of-12 from the field and had 4 turnovers that afternoon. Northwestern continued on a five-game midseason tailspin that erased a 15-3 start.

For a few minutes in a pressure-filled Welsh-Ryan, it looked like the Hoosiers would repeat the feat and drag Northwestern down to earth.

The Wildcats missed their first seven shots, including four threes, in front of a packed crowd that heaved with anticipation. Thomas Bryant had five points early, and the Hoosiers were getting out in transition. Even without their top scorer, they were looking like the offensive juggernaut Tom Crean usually has.

But then Collins’ team finally woke up. The Wildcats forced turnovers on seven straight possessions. By the time the visitors finally had a possession that didn’t end with a turnover, their 12-8 lead had become a 21-12 deficit.

McIntosh received the redemption against Indiana that he’d been waiting for. He posted 21 points on an efficient 7 of 13 outing from the field that included two three-pointers and five free throws. He added in eight assists, four rebounds and a steal, and also held visiting point guard Josh Newkirk to just five points on 1 of 8 shooting. After being the worst player on the floor last year, he was unquestionably the best on Sunday night.

“I’m just really proud of McIntosh,” Collins said. “He really controlled the game. He did a great job of leading us all night.”

Indiana never got it closer than six the rest of the way and spent almost the entirety of the second half down double digits. It was a comfortable home win against a basketball blue-blood, albeit one on hard times, and it sets up Northwestern beautifully for the rest of conference season.

“The defense was the story in this game,” Collins said. “I thought our team defense was really good... It was a great effort by a lot of people.” He was correct. Indiana averages 1.148 points per possession, eighth-best in the nation, but was limited to just 0.87 by Northwestern. And yes, not having Blackmon Jr. hurt the Hoosiers, but of the Indiana players who shot more than twice, just one (Bryant) made at least 50 percent of their shots.

The rebounding and defense was contagious. Law, who struggled with his shot, grabbed 12 rebounds, several times skying over Bryant to get the ball. The redshirt sophomore also limited Robert Johnson, the man in charge of stepping up in James Blackmon Jr.’s absence, to 12 points on 4 of 13 shooting. Johnson didn’t make a two-point shot and only got to the free throw line once.

“We knew that our guards were going to have to clean up the rebounds because our big guys — it was gonna be combat down there,” Collins said with a laugh. “With his leaping ability, he got a bunch of rebounds over the top... that’s one of Vic’s best attributes, is his ability to defensively rebound.”

And as karmic justice, on a night in which three of the four members from the class of 2014 struggled offensively, there was Sanjay Lumpkin, who has overseen the development of his teammates and this program. The fifth-year senior, who will end up in the program’s top five all-time in games played and games started, was outstanding on both ends. He often defended Bryant, who towers over him by four inches. On offense, he atomized Bryant’s ankles in one of the best moments of the season so far.

Lumpkin finished with 15 points on an uber-efficient six shots. It was his first double-figure effort of conference play, and Northwestern certainly needed it. With Northwestern down 10-1 early, it was Lumpkin who finally took the lid off the hoop with a layup, the first two points of a 20-2 avalanche.

“I was just letting the game come to me,” Lumpkin said. “Guys are finding me open; I was just taking the shot when it was there, taking the drive when it was there.”

Lumpkin has watched Scottie Lindsey turned himself into an all-conference scorer, and a focused defender. He’s watched Law, after showing promising signs as a freshman, battle back from injury and return to give 40 quality minutes per game on both ends of the floor. Lumpkin’s fought through it all, helped the young guns grow, and now he’s reaping the benefits.

“It’s great to see that,” he said. “Especially young guys that came in when I was a freshman, to see them grow is awesome for me to see, and they’re gonna keep it rolling.”

The same goes for Collins, who was given an unenviable task for his first head coaching job. The advent of Northwestern basketball had long seemed impossible, but now it’s nearly arrived.

“He’s had a chance to build his program, he really has,” Tom Crean said post-game. “He’s got older guys. They played without Law last year, which was hard, but every one of those guys has played since their freshman year... They’re good.”

They are indeed good. And as several players have spoken openly about, they’re “different.” There have been several “good” Northwestern teams, but there has never been a “different” one. In a year that begs for “the streak” to be broken, the Wildcats have already started making minor firsts. First win at Ohio State in decades. Best 7-2 conference start since 1937-38. Longest conference win streak since the Great Depression. Their overall mark of 18-4 is the best in program history. This team is already different — already historic — but the last hurdle looms. A challenging stretch featuring road games at Purdue, Wisconsin and Indiana and a home battle with Maryland all lie ahead.

“At the end of the day, there’s only two stories you’re going to write about,” McIntosh said. “We’ll either do something different and special, or we’ll be like every other Northwestern team.”

For now, they’re in line to do the former.