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Northwestern basketball’s final weeks are full of opportunity

Northwestern is Northwesterning...or is it setting up for a grand finish?

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve felt this before, haven’t you?

The mind-numbing, the heart-wrenching and the empty. The why, the how and the what.

Northwestern is Northwesterning. The team has lost five of its last seven. It blew a three-possession lead at Indiana with under two minutes to go. It dropped both of its meetings against in-state rival Illinois, a program in the midst of yet another down year and a likely coaching change. The team is spent, physically and emotionally. And how could you blame it? Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas both have missed basically the entire year. Scottie Lindsey got mono during a key part of the stretch run and still isn’t quite himself. Vic Law has been the worst shooter in the nation over the past month. Bryant McIntosh’s back has to be hurting after carrying the team for the past several weeks.

Or maybe Northwestern isn’t Northwesterning. Maybe a team that has said over and over again that it is different — and has shown it at times, like during its six-game Big Ten winning streak earlier in the year and its win at Wisconsin — that it really can be different. Yes, Northwestern is absolutely struggling right now, especially on the offensive end. During this seven-game stretch, the Wildcats have had their three worst offensive outings of the year in terms of efficient field goal percentage (twice against Illinois and at Purdue) and shot 26.7 percent from three. But the great thing about college basketball — and sports in general — is that each game is mutually exclusive. Just because the Wildcats have shot the ball poorly doesn’t necessarily mean they will continue to. Just because the Wildcats have struggled to win close games in the past, a problem that came up again at perhaps the worst time possible against Indiana, doesn’t mean that the Wildcats are incapable of winning a close contest.

When it comes down to it, every single person rooting for or playing for Northwestern would take a 20-9 record and affirmative NCAA Tournament projections with two more regular season games and the Big Ten Tournament to go. There is no arguing that. What’s better is that the Wildcats have the two games at home against a very good but beatable Michigan Wolverines squad as well as a Sunday afternoon date with the Big Ten-leading Purdue Boilermakers, a game that will be broadcast nationally as the feature matchup of the weekend on CBS. What more could you want? It’s not worth speculating how many wins will cement a spot, but what is undeniable is that Northwestern has two fantastic opportunities in front of itself to prove that it really is different — that this year really is The Year. It’s not longer a marathon, as Chris Collins has repeated multiple times in the past few weeks. It’s a sprint toward the end. Maybe Northwestern’s legs are more tired than those of other teams. Maybe it will take an unprecedented level of mental fortitude to will itself into The Big Dance. If that’s the case, so be it. It was never going to be easy anyway, right?

If Northwestern misses the tournament, you may look back at the careless hack by Lindsey, the Thomas Bryant free throw that clanged off the back iron before somehow dropping in, and McIntosh’s half-court shot that rimmed out. The narrative in two weeks might be missed opportunities, choking down the stretch and some bad luck. The narrative might be same old Northwestern.

But in two weeks, the history of this program could be forever altered, too. Fortunately, this Northwestern team still has the opportunity to rewrite history. Maybe those butterflies in your stomach aren’t because you’re fearful of failure, but rather because you have no clue what it could be like if Northwestern doesn’t fail. That’s what makes sport so great. That’s something beautiful. That’s something exciting.

That’s all you can ask for.