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Op-Ed: Two steps forward, one step back for Northwestern basketball

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...but don’t freak out yet.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 01 Northwestern at Wisconsin Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s the same churning feeling that comes the night before a big midterm. The tension of telling your parents you scratched their car. The nagging worry that this time, you will be caught for missing curfew.

The season opener stomach knot is known all too well, by players and fans alike.

Fears of another bad year—or worse, a disappointing season striking at just the wrong time for an up-and-coming program—run rampant. What if a Gordon Hayward situation happens? Sure, Northwestern wasn’t playing Duke or anything, but there were still jitters before the Loyola Maryland game.

A little sloppy play. A pass without a fake. 12 points off mistakes—not earned, just given. Another 13 handed over on defensive board complacency. Suddenly, a team that has since gone 6-14 over the next two and a half months chips away at what was once a comfortable 17-point lead.

That was it.

The win (by just four) didn’t feel like a win, especially in the confines of Allstate Arena. Instead, fans were left with the gut feeling of “What if something goes wrong?” that they’d hoped would’ve proven unnecessary after the first 40 minutes of the season, courtesy of a blowout win.

However, sometime around the Georgia Tech game, it became clear that the “Uh-oh” feeling was there for a reason—and wasn’t going away any time soon. Anyone who has watched this season has felt this foreboding at some point. There was too much hype. Too many sky-high expectations. It didn’t feel like Northwestern had “the secret” that good basketball teams have.

This will not be the Sweet 16 season for Northwestern, let alone the first back-to-back NCAA appearance in program history, unless Northwestern wins out or something (which is still possible!). Rather, the 2017-2018 basketball season will likely prove reminiscent of another cycle of Northwestern falling short of expectations. There were the 5-7 seasons of 2013 and 2014 sandwiched between 2012 and 2015’s 10-3 seasons just a few short years after the beginning of the Pat Fitzgerald era. There was 2016’s 7-6 season. Others still remember the disastrous 4-7 year in 2001 after winning a Big Ten title in 2000. For basketball, there’s plenty of examples, but the 13-19 season that got Carmody fired comes to mind. Northwestern does not always live up to our expectations, and it seems like men’s basketball is following this dismal trend.

Midway through the season, the Wildcats stand at 14-10, without a single exceedingly impressive showing against any team, let alone the upper-tier Big Ten opponents in a mediocre year for the conference.

The skill level, particularly defensively, was probably hindered by the loss of Sanjay Lumpkin, sure. Nate Taphorn is no longer there to hit threes when needed. But the rest of the starters and leading scorers remained, not to mention young players like Jordan Ash and Anthony Gaines adding their contributions.

So what happened?

“I think what we’re seeing with this team is that talent and ability doesn’t always trump everything, but a really close second to that is desire and chemistry,” Chicago Tribune’s Northwestern and Big Ten football and basketball writer Teddy Greenstein said.

The goal was achieved. The drive and hunger dipped.

“That’s human nature, before last season, they had never done it, and I think you just have that extra edge when you go into a year trying to prove everyone wrong, trying to justify why you chose Northwestern” Greenstein said. “They all chose Northwestern because they wanted to be the first team to make the NCAA tournament, so last year they were so incredibly fired up and desirous to break through.”

For a long time, or rather the history of Northwestern basketball, 20-win seasons marked successful campaigns, but the ultimate stamp of achievement would be nothing short of making the NCAA Tournament.

Unlike football, where 10 win seasons and a trip to a bowl would be considered fairly successful, piling up wins is not enough for basketball. “If you make the tournament, it’s a successful season, and if you don’t it’s not,” Greenstein said.

But, in the big picture, it’s not as bad as it seems.

That threshold has been crossed. This program has proven that it can get there. And it will get there again. Hopes were higher than ever, making the disappointment that much bigger.

In reality, it happens.

Programs have slumps. Off-years. Ruts. Little things, like a drop in intensity, an “away” home arena and mounting pressure to turn things around culminate into a big deal. Surely, these aren’t enough to shoulder the blame of the fall, but nor should they be completely ignored.

But although it hasn’t necessarily been reflected in a multi-game winning streak, the pieces that fell apart seem to be coming back together.

The wins have been low-scoring and not pretty. That’s fine. My coworkers need to stop whining. There’s nothing wrong with a defense-first team that maintains control through stops on the other end of the floor and recognizes they won’t finish every opportunity they have offensively. In fact, Northwestern’s new matchup zone has worked beautifully—whether or not it leads directly to turnovers every time, the rhythm disruption is enough to keep any offense nervously on its toes.

The drive and hunger will return. There’s so many “firsts” left—back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, a trip to the Sweet Sixteen, the Final Four, even a National Championship.

Whatever the next frontier is, there’s a future group of Wildcats who will have the hunger to cross it. Coach Collins’s recruiting has trended upward since he arrived, and with the new credentials of a tournament appearance and a rebuilt Welsh-Ryan Arena, it should continue to increase exponentially.

As for now, there’s seven games waiting to be played, including a final “home” stretch of three in a row at Allstate Arena—all of which are winnable. Going back to the football comparison, there really was a sustained period of better results after the 1995 season. In the long-term, the profile Northwestern football improved dramatically. The 20 years between 1975-1995 and 1995-2015 are markedly different. At least Northwestern isn’t in a drawn-out phase of decline from its peak, like Indiana basketball or Nebraska football. With support flowing into the basketball program, it’s easy to see success happening again.

For now, Northwestern just needs to keep winning, for its own sake, maybe even for our sake. A win streak this late in the season won’t be enough to make a difference come postseason rankings, but at least it would be a well-earned sendoff for Scottie Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh and Gavin Skelly, the seniors who’s four years of dedication made not qualifying for the tournament a disappointment, rather than an expectation.