Just over two years ago to the day, I sat inside then Bankers Life Fieldhouse and watched as Northwestern fell to Minnesota on the first day of the Big Ten Tournament 74-57. Even as the ‘Cats held a 31-29 lead at halftime, it never felt as though they had a shot to win that game. The Gophers had defeated them by a whopping 26-point margin just over two weeks prior, and promptly outscored Northwestern by a 30-12 margin in the first 10 minutes of that second half on the road to victory.
Iowa at least had the decency on Thursday afternoon to not tease ‘Cats’ fans with any sense of victory, dominating from the open tip on the way to the most prolific offensive performance in the tournament’s history, winning 112-76 over Northwestern. That same inevitable expectation of loss that I felt two years ago hung with me yesterday in Indianapolis, even if it struck with far less subtlety this time around.
That dismal end to the season doesn’t take away what Northwestern did accomplish in beating Nebraska the day prior. As Chris Collins repeated after the win, that was not a game the team from two years ago would have won. It proved that steps had been taken. However, the Hawkeyes’ beatdown of the the purple and white proved that NU is still at the bottom of that staircase it’s trying to climb.
“I told the guys that we got a lot better in a lot of areas, but we’re still not at the level we need to be to reach our goal,” said Collins postgame. “But a lot of times that last step is the hardest step, because in order to do that, you have to find a way to consistently win in this league.”
It’s the same thing Collins needed his program to do five years ago in 2017, when the ‘Cats made the Round of 32 in March Madness and won two games in the conference tournament. They were right below the level of the elite in the B1G, and expected to take that final step into being a conference contender in 2018, only to see everything come crashing down.
The 2021-22 Northwestern team itself wasn’t able to take a step into the level of the heralded ‘17 squad like it desired to, and now the ‘23 team is burdened with that arduous task without the help of the best men’s basketball player to come through Evanston in the past decade in Pete Nance. It’s not a promising outlook.
That’s the sad reality this program currently sits in. Everything the past few years, all of those losses followed by the now infamous references to the team’s youth were supposed to result in a team this year that would win more conference games than they lost. A veteran team hardened by its painful experiences into a gritty winner. Instead it was the same sad close-game defeats, just with a few more bright spots here and there, making the 31-game campaign as a whole feel like a missed opportunity.
“There were definitely a handful of games out there for us that if they had gone the other way, you know, we’d be talking about potentially playing next week,” said Collins, reflecting on his team’s 15-16 final record.
A person separated from the situation might not understand why yesterday’s defeat hurt so much. Northwestern knew its season was over unless four more wins were earned, and at the very least a start-to-finish blowout allows time for the reality of the loss to set in. But just look at the team’s leader and keynote player in Nance to grasp how the 36-point rout hit him, as the senior forward quickly left the postgame presser with tears in his eyes while saying just how proud he is to be a Wildcat.
"I'm just proud to be a Northwestern Wildcat, for sure."— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 10, 2022
Pete Nance (@peteln22) hasn't made a decision about his future, but he got a little emotional talking about his @NUMensBball career. pic.twitter.com/EzoNcp9Uwb
That’s not a sense of anger or frustration from Nance, it’s justifiable sadness. Sadness that his collegiate career is (likely) over, and sadness that all those losses he suffered throughout his first three years weren’t enough to build his team into one worthy of a tournament bid.
If a Northwestern team with Nance was still miles away from having a chance at competing with a team like Iowa when it mattered most, what chance do the future squads truly have? Any of the returning players rising to his level seems highly unlikely, and the Big Ten isn’t getting any easier any time soon.
Last weekend I looked back a photo I took prior to that loss to Minnesota back in March of 2020. Since then I’ve gotten in a lot better shape, learned the value of a timely haircut and actually started trying to wear nice clothes. I’ve gotten better.
But ultimately, I’m still the same person with the same flaws and shortcomings I had back then, just not to as stark a degree as before. That’s how I feel about this Northwestern team. They got better, they got to work and improved some of their most glaring flaws, but were still the same flawed team at the end of the day — some promising talent, a knack for unlucky and untimely breaks in close games and a clear barrier separating them from the above tier in the conference.
Only time will tell if the Collins and Northwestern can make it back to that third week in March come 2023, but this season’s end did little to make anyone believe that might be the case.