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Through unrelenting losses, Northwestern’s final four regular season games retain meaning

We go back to the 2014-15 squad to see what a late-season push can do for a young, scuffling team moving forward.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

After Sunday’s 83-57 destruction by Minnesota, Chris Collins, once again trying to find new words for the same feeling, said it was not one of his team’s “finer days.”

Unfortunately, for Northwestern men’s basketball fans, those days have become the norm for the 2019-20 season. Throughout the current 11-game losing streak, NU’s defeats have not followed any particular pattern. We have seen blown leads and last-second heartbreakers. We have seen games where Northwestern has hung around against teams with greater talent only to collapse down the stretch.

But on Sunday, we saw the Wildcats get completely outclassed for the third time in their last four games. And this one was the worst of the bunch. After the debacle, Collins was quick to highlight other Big Ten programs that have undergone a rebuild similar to the one the Wildcats envision. The head coach pointed to programs, like Penn State and Rutgers, that are now playing some of the best basketball in the conference after years of severe struggles.

If Northwestern needs a team to emulate and look to for guidance on how to rebuild from what has been a miserable season so far, though, Chris Collins does not need to look any further than his own past teams.

Let’s rewind five seasons.

In December of 2014, Northwestern defeated Rutgers 51-47 to secure a Big Ten win for Collins’ first recruiting class at NU. Almost a week later, the night before Northwestern students started their winter quarter, the Wildcats were blown out in the old Welsh-Ryan Arena 81-58 by eventual national runner-up Wisconsin.

The ‘Cats’ loss to the Badgers marked the first of ten consecutive defeats.

In the ensuing stretch, Northwestern suffered its fair share of heartbreakers. Up first, the Wildcats traveled to East Lansing to face Michigan State, a team that also ended up in the Final Four in 2015. After Tre Demps hit two free throws with 28 seconds remaining, the Wildcats led by a pair. Unfortunately, Denzel Valentine hit two free throws to force an overtime that the Spartans would end up winning by seven. Still, that game helped inspire confidence and spirit into a young Northwestern group.

Next, Northwestern lost a back-and-forth game 72-67 to in-state rival Illinois. Following that, the ‘Cats dropped another heartbreaker. This time it was at the hands of Michigan. NU lost 56-54 as Bryant Mcintosh missed a floater as time expired that would’ve given his squad a chance in overtime.

From there, things got even worse. In the following game against Ohio State, Northwestern lost by two points at home to a D’Angelo Russell-led Buckeye squad. The next game, though, was the most gut-wrenching defeat of all. With under four minutes remaining, Northwestern led by 11 points at #8 Maryland. The Wildcat faithful, unfortunately, know how this one ended.

While Northwestern’s loss to Maryland was even more distressing than the overtime loss to MSU (and other losses), these devastating late defeats gave NU players experience and helped the team’s young core win games later in their career.

After Maryland, Northwestern fell to Purdue by eight points at home after holding a one point lead at halftime. From there, though, the wheels completely fell off. Northwestern lost its next three games by a combined 55 points.

Finally, on February 15, 2015, the ‘Cats seemed primed to break the losing streak. With three seconds left in regulation, Northwestern led by three points against Iowa. Still, the Hawkeyes possessed the basketball, and Iowa had a chance to send the game to overtime.

When Jared Uthoff hit an off-balance, contested triple to send the game to OT for the Hawkeyes, it appeared the Wildcats were poised to lose their 11th consecutive game in another heartbreaker. But the ‘Cats did not fold, finally prevailing 66-61 in overtime.

While this win over Iowa may seem irrelevant, this victory carried great significance, building momentum for the future of the program. After beating the Hawkeyes, Northwestern found a way to win its next three games.

“Feeling what it took to win allowed us to finish strong and that led into the off-season,” Collins reflected on that 2015 win over Iowa. “That same group of guys came back and won 20 and 24 games [in the next two seasons]. That’s what we gotta do. ”

While fans certainly should not feel good about the current state of Northwestern’s season, there is still plenty to play for in its final four games. The difference between a No. 14 and No. 13 seed in the Big Ten Tournament is irrelevant at this point, but this inexperienced Northwestern team still has a few critical opportunities to pick up some semblance of momentum, or at the very least a sense of what it feels like to win in conference.

If they can’t at least do that, well, there just isn’t much left to say.