EVANSTON — The cameras tell a lot of the story.
Before Northwestern's season-opener, local TV stations flocked to Blomquist Recreation center, a gym that typically houses intramurals and pick-up games. Reporters from all over the area came just to get their chance to talk to the first preseason top-25 team in program history.
The Northwestern team that made history and punched the school's first-ever ticket to the Big Dance took most people by surprise. Its encore would not. Everyone was ready. The pieces were in place. The returning core of battle-tested veterans, a historic jumping-off point, a rapidly ascending coach, new facilities in the pipeline and a quartet of talented new recruits waiting in the wings — all there. If you're reading this, you know most of this.
The path to perennial success was clear, and many deemed it to be on the immediate horizon. College basketball pundits across the nation tabbed Northwestern as one of the 20 or 25 best teams in the country. The purple-crazed media contingent echoed that excitement until nearly every Twitter-scroller had seen it. Northwestern wanted it all, and for good reason. But that's where it gets complicated.
You see, the trouble with proclaiming you've arrived is that maybe you haven't. For a program that bounced around the college basketball abyss for longer than most people have lived, last year's success was a highly addicting drug. It was great fun, and the fanbase couldn't get enough of it.
Final Fours and Big Ten Championships were thrown around as legitimate possibilities the following season. The next Duke was imminent on the North Shore of Chicago, at least as long as Collins was manning the ship.
Some or all of that might still be in play. One season played at a minor league hockey arena won't erase the facilities coming down the pike, the recruits and the like. Northwestern remains in a great spot to make another leap.
But, if there's anything to learn from this season, that's no given.
And just like that, the cameras were gone.
Only the Northwestern athletic department's camera stood facing Chris Collins, and Northwestern was actually coming off one of its best stretches of season after wins over Penn State and Minnesota. A date with ranked Michigan loomed.
Yet, the obsessive attention that swarmed Blomquist months earlier had all but subsided, replaced by a much smaller group of reporters. Losing will do that.
Getting utterly and thoroughly exposed by Texas Tech prompted serious questions, even internally. Collins stripped the locker room bare of all gear containing a Northwestern logo, and two-a-day practices followed.
Well, that clearly didn't work. Just two games later, the team dropped a game to a lowly Georgia Tech team.
There were "Come to Jesus" team meetings after losses to Nebraska and Penn State that weren't close.
The coaches came out without neckties against Minnesota. Northwestern strung together two solid wins after that, before failing to score 50 points against Michigan.
As it turns out, none of the gimmicks could bring back the previous season's seniors, Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn, or the previous season's magic and the players' unrelenting want-to.
On the court, the Wildcats couldn't guard consistently all season, and the offense came and went. There was more of the latter than the former. Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey posted the worst shooting percentages of their careers.
The team missed Lumpkin’s defense and leadership, and losing top assistant Pat Baldwin might've hurt too, though first-year replacement Billy Donlon is highly regarded in his own right.
But, quite honestly, most people won't remember most of these details in five years. This season will be filed away, never to be seen again. It'll probably be known as some variation of “the Allstate Year,” a season in which Northwestern had no home arena and the chemistry just never worked. The KenPom numbers, the minor personnel shifts over the course of the season and most of the individual games will fade into the history books in favor of more general descriptions: inconsistency, mediocrity and, at times, even ineptitude.
It should be said, however, that the senior class, which has gone through so, so much in Evanston, from losing 10 straight games as freshmen to blazing an irrevocable legacy by finally taking Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament, won't fall victim to the same fate.
That 2014 class, Collins’s first class, is the single most-important recruiting class in Northwestern history, and it isn't particularly close. They didn't deserve to go out this way, but that's just how it happened. B-Mac, Lindsey, Gavin Skelly and even Vic Law, who still has a year of eligibility left, elevated the program to new heights at a time when few others would.
This season can't take any of that away.
But this season also isn't meaningless; no season is.
Much of the preseason excitement stemmed from Northwestern's 2018 recruiting class, widely regarded as one of the Big Ten's best.
It's justified. Pete Nance is a highly skilled big, and he's a cornerstone type of player for the program. Bryant McIntosh says he’ll be “unreal” at Northwestern. Miller Kopp — a sharpshooting wing — could be a program-changing talent too. Jordan Lathon is a great athlete for the point guard position, and Ryan Young is from the East Coast and had a Maryland offer, which represents growth for Collins’s recruiting inroads. Put plainly, the class boasts a lot of ability. McIntosh called the class “probably” the best in Northwestern history. With that, it also faces a great deal of pressure.
Coming off a disappointment of a season, next season will carry with it added urgency. Welsh-Ryan Arena will reopen next season and Northwestern's season ticket base is larger than it's ever been. The roster has talent coming back in Dererk Pardon and Law (in all likelihood), but losing McIntosh, Lindsey and Skelly will, at the very least, be a major change. McIntosh ran Northwestern's offense for four years and Lindsey is the team's leading scorer. When McIntosh missed time this season, the result was nothing short of abominable.
With the three seniors departing, the freshmen will need to contribute next season, a la 2014-2015, when McIntosh, Law, and Lindsey to a lesser degree, were "thrown to the wolves," as Law put it.
Relying on freshmen is a tricky proposition, and this isn’t a Duke or Kentucky where McDonald's All-Americans grow on trees. Through two years, the 2016 class of Rapolas Ivanauskas, Barret Benson and Isiah Brown hasn't added much to the program, and Collins only landing Anthony Gaines in 2017 means that depth could be issue at some point in the near future.
Northwestern could be a in a much worse spot. Collins could've swung and missed on Nance and Kopp. The 2018 class will have a heaping weight on its shoulders to usher in a new phase for the program, but it appears talented enough to do that.
“Well, now there’s history,” McIntosh said. “[My recruiting class] didn’t have that. We had to make our own. Now, they’ve gotta go out-do it. We’ve made this program allowed to make a jump, and we’ll see what they can do.”
It would be nice if the road to success was linear. Until this season, it more or less was during the Collins era. The build was slow but steady, and every year brought progress.
That's not to say progress hasn't been made this season. The Allstate Year has forced Collins and the players to look inward, which is a good thing. Chemistry and a solid foundation of defensive principles won't be taken for granted again this upcoming offseason.
Younger players like Anthony Gaines did get experience, and this season might just be the wake-up call everybody in the program needed.
It's difficult to make the NCAA Tournament, which Northwestern should've understood better than anybody. Sustained excellence doesn't happen overnight, and one NCAA Tournament appearance won't create that.
Last season made Northwestern dream big. It made imaginations wander further than they ever had. Northwestern was about to explode onto the national scene. Commentators kept referring to us as a “sleeping giant” or “ones to watch out for going forward.”
And then Northwestern didn't consolidate. The players and coaches didn't deal with the added expectations, attention and circumstances very well. Getting its home arena back, in addition to a badly-needed infusion of talented young prospects, the program should still have the same aspirations it had before the season. But this season has created more questions than answers moving forward.
McIntosh, speaking to what advice he’d give the incoming recruiting class, sums it up well.
“Understand that it’s not gonna happen easily,” he said. “And just cause it’s expected to happen doesn’t mean it will. You gotta go make it happen.”