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What should fans be looking for in Northwestern’s final stretch of the season?

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Nine games to go.

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

The current state of Northwestern men’s basketball is not great.

It’s not a secret at this point. The Wildcats have lost 11 of their last 12 games, and barring some kind of drastic midseason turnaround, a second straight bottom of the barrel finish in the Big Ten seems to be this season’s most likely outcome. Anybody who has watched this team over the past few months knows this program is very much not trending upward, and considering this season anything other than a lost cause is understandably difficult with NU sitting at 1-10 in conference play

There are legitimate excuses to be made taking into account this team’s inexperience and injury woes. Maybe the Wildcats deserve more credit than their record indicates, and maybe they’ve just been the victim of unfortunate luck in a few of these close losses.

But all that speculation is nothing more than just unnecessary reminiscing at this point. As long as Chris Collins and his squad continue to take the floor, there is always going to be something to play for.

So with that in mind, here are some things fans should be looking for as the Wildcats gear up for the final nine games of the regular season.

Trend upwards instead of downwards

I know I’m Captain Obvious here, but nine games is plenty of time to reverse the current trend of the program. Just because such a turnaround won’t land NU a spot in the postseason doesn’t mean this final stretch of the season should be overlooked.

‘Trending upward’ can manifest itself in a variety of ways. It could come in form of surpassing last year’s conference record of 4-16, or maybe it is as simple as winning an opening round matchup in the Big Ten Tournament to at least garner some semblance of momentum heading into the offseason. Maybe we have to set the bar really low and classify winning a single conference road game as enough to constitute momentum.

Define Pete Nance’s role

After a strong start to his sophomore season, Nance’s play tailed off as Northwestern hit the meat of Big Ten play. He’s averaging just 7.1 points per game in conference play, and frankly, the 6-foot-10 forward often looks a bit lost in the offense, unsure how to use his impressive skillset.

Purdue v Northwestern Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The Nance experiment has been disappointing thus far, but it’s far too early to count out his role on this team moving forward and his potential to emerge into a legit threat as an upperclassman. With nothing really tangible to play for in the season’s final month, I’d like to see Collins experiment with Nance in some new sets, giving him plenty of one-on-one looks to show what he can do.

So what if forcing the ball to Nance doesn’t materialize to anything or even costs the Wildcats a few games? Player development should take priority for a team that’s playing with nothing to lose. The sophomore’s improvement will significantly influence Northwestern’s chance at progressing as a program these next few seasons, so why not use these next nine games as a chance to give him more looks?

Give Pat Baldwin Jr. a reason to come to Northwestern

If you haven’t heard by now, former Northwestern star Pat Baldwin’s son is quite good at basketball, and the high school junior is at least keeping Northwestern on his list of options as he continues to rise in the recruiting rankings. Getting Baldwin Jr., 247Sports’s No. 3 national recruit, already feels like a long enough shot as it stands, so the Wildcats showing they can be at least somewhat competitive in the Big Ten feels like the bare minimum for having any legitimate shot at the five-star.

The Wildcats are already pulling out all the strings to keep themselves on Baldwin Jr.’s radar. Welsh-Ryan Arena will play host to the E-Town Classic this weekend, which will feature the star’s high school team out of Sussex, Wisconsin, against Evanston Township High School on Saturday night. That’s a good start, but my gut tells me it’s going to take more than that for Chris Collins to lure PBJ to Northwestern in two years.