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Lessons learned from a second loss to Illinois and what it means for Northwestern’s dream season

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The Wildcats missed a golden opportunity to push their 2016-2017 campaign into unprecedented territory.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, ILL. — If Northwestern’s program-defining season crashes and burns down the stretch, it will likely have the Fighting Illini to blame.

For the second time in the month of February, the Wildcats suffered an ugly defeat at the hands of their in-state rival, this time falling 66-50 in Champaign. With the loss, the Wildcats dropped to 20-8, 9-6 Big Ten on the season and missed a golden opportunity to push their 2016-2017 campaign into unprecedented territory.

What would the victory have meant for Northwestern? With a 21st overall win, this team would have been the first in the program’s 113-year history to surpass the 20-win mark. With a 10th Big Ten win, the Wildcats would have clinched their first winning conference campaign since 1967 and it would have been the first year that the team registered double-digit conference wins since 1932. To give you an idea of how long ago that was, that 1932-1933 squad, coached by Arthur Lonberg, went 10-2 in the Western Conference.

All of Northwestern’s successes this season, from the 89-54 trouncing of Iowa back in January to the 66-59 upset over No. 7 Wisconsin in Madison last week, have been building to something. With the inescapable reality that Northwestern remains the only major Division I program without an NCAA tournament berth looming over the team, every game down the stretch carries a special weight.

The expectation of this team, in this moment, is tournament or bust. Needless to say, these losses could have a damaging impact on the Wildcats’ ability to meet this expectation.

Moments like this represent opportunity to take a hard look at Northwestern’s tournament case. The team has three wins over current top-50 RPI teams (Wisconsin, Wake Forest, Dayton) and seven if you expand that field to the current top 100 (Nebraska, Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana), which is certainly respectable. Close losses to Notre Dame and Butler early in the year are nothing to sniff at and even losses to Michigan State (in East Lansing), Minnesota and Purdue (despite the latter being a shellacking) likely aren’t overly damaging stains on Northwestern’s standing in the eyes of the committee. Northwestern should also benefit from playing in a weaker Big Ten this season than the quality the conference has boasted historically. The Wildcats have notched a high quantity of solid wins, one big one, and have, for the most part, avoided enough bad losses to firmly cement themselves in the hunt for a mid-level seed come Selection Sunday.

Two losses in 14 days to Illinois though, especially given the grotesque nature of both contests, could change everything.

In a lot of ways, the two losses are eerily similar. In the Feb. 7 game at Welsh-Ryan, which Northwestern lost 68-61, the team shot 19-56 (33.9 percent), compared to 18-56 (32.1 percent) last night. The Wildcats struggled from deep in both games, shooting 30 percent on threes in Evanston and 22.2 percent in Champaign, despite averaging 19 attempts per game across the two contests. Northwestern set a new season low in assists last night, registering only 5. They dished out just 10 dimes two weeks ago.

All of these statistics point to a stagnant offense and, additionally, double-digit turnovers in each affair points to the team being fatigued on that side of the ball. But the most glaring facet of each of these games that pervades the ups and downs Northwestern has recently endured is Bryant McIntosh.

This team goes as McIntosh goes. It’s as simple as that. When he’s great, the team excels, but when the weight of the offense falls on him too completely, Northwestern’s margin of error rapidly shrinks. Luckily for the Wildcats, McIntosh has been spectacular for much of the latter half of the season after struggling with his jumper early on. Since the opening of conference play, McIntosh is averaging 42 percent shooting and 2 turnovers per game in victories, and 35.7 percent shooting and 2.8 turnovers in defeats.

All of this isn’t to blame McIntosh for Northwestern’s inconsistency, only acknowledge his value to the team. His late game heroics saved Northwestern from a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Rutgers just days ago and he singlehandedly pushed the offense to two hard-fought wins against Ohio State and Wisconsin, two of the team’s most impressive victories.

“Bryant was tired in the second half. In the first he did everything and we couldn’t get anyone else going,” head coach Chris Collins said after Tuesday’s game.

“We’ve got to get him some help.”

And here lies the deeper issue. Who can Collins turn to for consistent offense outside of McIntosh? The team still lacks real depth. Think of the value that contributions from guys like Aaron Falzon or Rapolas Ivanauskas would provide during this stretch. Additionally, as Collins alluded to postgame, Scottie Lindsey isn’t back to 100 percent of what he was before his extended absence.

“In his case, he just has to get in the gym every day and keep working,” Collins said of Lindsey. “He didn’t do anything for three weeks, so I think it’s real simple there. He’s just gotta get games under his belt.”

Collins mentioned Vic Law and Dererk Pardon as other players he expects to step up and alleviate some of the pressure on McIntosh. Law was plagued with foul trouble early and often last night and Pardon showed flashes of production on the offensive glass, but, ultimately - with a usage rate approaching an absurd 40 percent - the duty of driving the offense fell on McIntosh yet again.

Collins and his squad have never been in the habit of making excuses and, even if they were, now wouldn’t be the time. The Wildcats close the season against a slumping Indiana, an erratic but hot Michigan squad and the same Purdue team that rained fireballs on their heads on Feb. 1, and with these contests comes opportunity. In preparation for the stretch run, Collins chose to not stress the pressure on his team, but instead this opportunity to generate some momentum heading into the Big Ten and (hopefully) NCAA tournaments, respectively.

“This time of the year is when you get excited. It's not a marathon anymore. You have three regular season games left and then whatever you earn after that you’ve gotta earn,” Collins said. “But I hope our guys are excited about that.”

This could prove to be the most important three-game stretch in program history, and, as brilliant as he can be, Northwestern will need more than just Bryant McIntosh to achieve the impossible and clinch its spot in the Big Dance.