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Where does Northwestern go from here?

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Northwestern’s Big Ten Tournament exit epitomized its tough season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Tournament-Northwestern vs Minnesota Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — An ending like this was as predictable as it gets.

A first round exit in the Big Ten Tournament for Northwestern was the only way this season was going to an end. All the signs were there from day one.

Where to even start?

The numerous transfers announced last offseason? The fact that Chris Collins had to go to a former lacrosse star to fill his starting point guard position? The Merrimack loss to open the season? The Radford loss? The Hartford loss? The countless blown second half leads?

The result we got Wednesday night was always coming. A second consecutive first-day exit in the Big Ten Tournament felt inevitable from the moment the season began.

Northwestern was handedly defeated by Minnesota for the third time this season, crashing out of the Big Ten Tournament and thus finally putting an end to a dreadful season — a season that felt over before it even started.

Wednesday’s game followed an all-too-familiar pattern for this iteration of Northwestern basketball. A strong, inspired first half performance followed by a second half meltdown. The 74-57 loss was simply a microcosm of the Wildcats entire 2019-20 campaign.

Collins’ postgame remarks therefore struck a tone that fans have grown too accustomed to hearing.

“I’m really proud of this group,” the head coach said sitting at the podium alongside Boo Buie, Miller Kopp and Pete Nance after the loss. “It’s not about the wins and losses this year. We fought all year long. That’s what I’m so proud about...I’m really excited about the direction of where these guys are headed.”

Looking at that 2019-20 season as a whole, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly that ‘direction’ is.

Can you really say the program is trending upward when it won just one conference game against a Big Ten team not named Nebraska? How many legitimate positives can you truly take away from a set of players and coaches that folded time and time again down the stretch in Big Ten play?

“This Big Ten this year was a monster. Everybody saw it,” Collins said postgame. “For the most part, over a 20-game season, we were competitive night in and night out with a group that’s never been out there before, and that showed me what these guys are going to be, and it makes me really encouraged about where we’re headed.”

The optimism exuded at these postgame press conferences from coaches and players regarding the program’s trajectory is expected, but it also feels genuine. There’s a genuine feeling among these players that the results are coming down the line, although there’s nothing left to do but speculate until the team takes the floor next fall.

The head coach certainly has a point.

Northwestern hung around in plenty of its Big Ten contests this year, and complete start-to-finish blowouts were isolated occasions. The Wildcats were a competitive team that gave numerous high-caliber opponents close-calls and overall put some good fights. Their dismal record probably didn’t quite do their season justice, and it’s no surprise that a team full of young players struggled in a conference full of stars.

In that sense, can we say that the program is trending ‘downward’? Things can’t get any worse than this season, right?

The concern with this Northwestern team moving forward doesn’t lie in the team’s win-loss record, but rather the fact that we saw the same story — the same problems — plague them over and over again in seemingly every game. While players like Ryan Young and Miller Kopp may have made significant individual strides and improvements throughout the season, fundamental team issues remained consistent throughout.

Poor defensive positioning. A lack of creativity on offense. The absence of a primary ball handler. The inability to close games. Seeing the Wildcats collapse once again against Minnesota, this time to end their season, left more questions than answers heading into the offseason. The Senior Day performance was a nice boost, but the 2019-20 season ended without instilling much confidence that this team is primed to take the next step as a program.

“We’re using this game and this season really as motivation going into the off-season, going into next season,” Kopp said postgame. “Our heads are up, and this season was tough, but we have used and will use every loss, every trial and tribulation as motivation going into the off-season.”

Collins and this program deserve the benefit of the doubt this season for playing through some tough injuries and an overall lack of depth, but inexperience can only be an excuse for so long. Simply being ‘competitive’ in a tough conference is not going to fly moving forward, and the utter train wreck that was this season has deservedly ramped up the pressure for the program to show some kind of promise in the future.

“We’ve got to be better. There’s no question. We’ve got to be better in almost every area,” Collins said. “It’s going to be a huge off-season of development for all of us. Players, coaches, everybody involved in the program.”

Northwestern’s roster still includes several of the highest-ranked recruits in program history, and there is still belief among the players that they can get things moving in the right direction. But it’s going to require more than just the flip of a switch.

“We have a lot to prove, and I know that we believe that we can accomplish a lot,” Pete Nance said. “That’s what’s most important, and we’re going to stick together and just get to work, and we’re going to get a lot better, and we’ll be back.”