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A season of silver linings just got its biggest one yet

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Let’s take a look on the bright side on this lovely Sunday afternoon.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Silver linings aren’t sexy.

As fans, turning to silver linings after a game means things didn’t originally go the way we had hoped for. We talk about them to make ourselves feel better about a current state that we aren’t pleased with. Silver linings temporarily distract us from the present struggles. There’s nothing sexy about that.

So with that in mind, let’s talk about some silver linings from Northwestern men’s basketball’s loss to Illinois yesterday.

First and foremost, Northwestern is no longer in consideration to be the laughingstock of the Big Ten. That may not jump off the page as a ‘silver lining,’ but for a team that suffered some brutal losses in the non-conference slate and has dealt with multiple unfortunate injuries, it’s an important development.

Although the wins aren’t coming just yet, the Wildcats have shown the ability to hang with some of the conference’s best. They took Michigan State down to the wire, and twice they played about as good as you possibly can while still ultimately losing in tough road environments (Champaign and Bloomington).

The Wildcats may be last in the Big Ten standings, but they are far from an embarrassment. There’s a big distinction. Chris Collins’ team of eight (!) healthy scholarship players is actually playing pretty solid basketball and putting up some valiant efforts in the deepest conference in the sport. Silver linings.

Proving that you belong in a conference that you’re already a part of really isn’t the greatest silver lining, but pointing that out in this season of frustrating results remains important. The losses suck, but the potential is there, and you have to feel that wins will start to line up for this team down the road if they keep playing like they did on Saturday.

Why be confident that the wins are going to come for this team? Because they have the young pieces to win in the future, and many of those young pieces are developing on a game-to-game basis at this point.

Take Miller Kopp, for example. The sophomore has now put up double digit numbers in seven straight games, and he’s hit two or more threes in all of those contests. His three-point percentage is up nine points from last year at an impressive 40 percent, good for seventh-best in the Big Ten. Part of Kopp’s increased scoring has obviously come with the absence of Boo Buie, but his development shouldn’t be overlooked. The sophomore is emerging into the consistent, reliable scorer that he was recruited to be.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

And while we’re on the topic of tall stretch forwards, let’s take a second to talk about Robbie Beran. After looking very much like a true freshman for the first half of the season, the 6’9 first year out of Richmond is looking more and more confident by the game since his appointment to the starting lineup two weeks ago.

Beran’s averaging 10.6 points a game as a starter, and Saturday marked his best game yet as he led NU in scoring with a career-high 17 points. The stats won’t blow you away, but anyone who has watched this team all year could point out the forward’s improvement just from the eye test.

Perhaps the biggest improvement of Beran’s game is the fact that he’s taking more threes, which he should be doing as a 41.4 percent shooter from deep. He still has a ways to go as was on display yesterday when he was mercilessly rejected by Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn (see header photo) on what could have been a crucial late layup. That being said, the experience Beran is getting as a starter is invaluable, and it’s going to show down the road.

Would it have been awesome if Northwestern had pulled one out on the road and secured its first win in Champaign since 2012? Yes, it would have. But that’s not what this game, or this entire season, is really about.

Between the offseason transfers, roster inexperience and long-term injuries to two starters, this season’s goals were never going to revolve around the postseason. Rather, the benchmarks for this year, as every fan knows, are going to be measured in terms of development both individually and as a team.

Given the way this team has fought and competed through adversity this year, you can’t say that development isn’t occurring. So for a Northwestern team that essentially lost its postseason aspirations on the first day of the season against Merrimack, this season was always going to be about silver linings.

And Saturday gave them their best one to date.