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It’s not time to panic in Evanston, but this isn’t last season anymore

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The Wildcats need to re-gel and find their chemistry.

NCAA Basketball: Loyola-Maryland at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

ROSEMONT, IL — Three months from now, Friday night hopefully won't be more than a footnote for Northwestern.

On the surface, what was supposed to happen happened. The Wildcats beat Loyola (Md.), and their four stars combined for 70 points.

It was anything but easy.

The unexpectedly thin margin in Northwestern's nervy 79-75 win was a function of early-season jitters, playing in a unfamiliar environment, adjusting to a new year and a rotation thrown off by injury and foul trouble.

But Northwestern's uninspired second half performance was more than that. Bryant McIntosh said it himself.

Before the wily senior got to the microphone, Chris Collins voiced discontent about his team's second half struggles and a lack of discipline, and Scottie Lindsey — the main reason Northwestern won at all — lamented his team's inability to keep its foot on the gas pedal and issue a crushing blow to Loyola.

"That's really frustrating, and that's something we've gotta work on," said Lindsey, who led both teams with 26 points.

Then enter B-Mac, the team's resilient heart and soul, the offense's tireless engine and a player who has stood tall throughout his three-plus years in Evanston, even with more pressure on his back than any other in the program.

Asked about his team's performance, the Greensburg, Indiana native's answer cut deeper than Collins's or Lindsey's. There wasn't just frustration, but an evident disappointment, and a back-to-the-drawing-board mentality that was honestly a bit surprising.

"We have a big ceiling," McIntosh said. "We just have to go to work and go back to having fun. I thought we didn't have a lot of emotion, we were kind of lifeless tonight. It starts with me. I have to do a better job of that. And I will."

That was the second time during the presser that he mentioned leadership, particularly his own leadership, as an issue. Part of that is just McIntosh's personality; he has always shouldered blame, almost to a fault.

But the words he used were big ones. "Lifeless" isn't how you would expect a top-25 team to perform in its season opener on the back of its most successful year ever. In reality, the Wildcats really weren't lifeless. Vic Law was skying for highlight-worthy plays along the baseline, Dererk Pardon was dunking with authority and Lindsey was splashing triples.

The crowd even got decently loud in the second half. It obviously wasn't last-game-at-Welsh-Ryan loud, but, for what was about a half-filled crowd at Allstate Arena, it was pretty good, especially when the cheerleaders tossed pizzas and t-shirts into the seats during breaks in the action.

Still, McIntosh felt the performance lacked fervor about it, which speaks to the feeling in the locker room. And it did feel like something seemed missing for Northwestern in the second half. On the court, that could be boiled down to no reliable scoring punch from the bench, too many silly fouls and some good looks that just didn't go in. Aaron Falzon was out too; he would've added the kind of shooting and firepower from the outside that was missing from everyone not named Lindsey in NU's 5-of-21 showing from beyond-the-arc.

But there was a complacency about the Wildcats' offensive sets after halftime, as was often the case last season when the team got out to early leads before blowing them and fighting through pressure-packed second halves. Against a mid-major like Loyola, albeit a solid team that hit a bunch of difficult shots, seeing a sizable lead evaporate is disheartening.

It will prompt some internal questions. But Friday was also the first game of the season. It isn't time to overreact, and it doesn't seem like anybody's doing that.

Northwestern is a team that needs to figure out how to turn last season's success from a daily burden into an exciting springboard. Even though 2017-2018 is a different year with its own set of questions, last season and the implications of erasing a 78-year Tournament drought aren't going away.

Northwestern is also a team that needs to do a little soul-searching. It needs to rekindle the magic, the joy and the energy last season's team found. It's harder to do that sans a packed, cozy Welsh-Ryan, so the spark is going to have to come from the players themselves.

Opening night at Allstate Arena was supposed to be a triumphant return, a smooth step on Northwestern's quest to make it back to the Big Dance. That's not what it was.

As monumental, earth-shattering and historic as 2016-2017 was, it's over. It's a new season — Friday made that abundantly clear. But what’s important is that the Wildcats survived. They’re 1-0.