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Entering March, the urgency is growing for Northwestern

The Wildcats’ feel-good sentiment is losing its luster down the stretch.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Feb. 20 was a phenomenal day to be a Northwestern basketball fan.

The Wildcats had just finished quite possibly their best week in program history, defeating No. 1 Purdue, No. 15 Indiana and Iowa in the span of eight days. That morning, Chris Collins’ squad was ranked at No. 21 in the AP Poll, its first appearance in such rankings since December 2020. Life sure was good.

Ten days later, much of that good feeling is nowhere to be found.

After reaching seemingly its pinnacle of not only the year, but its entirety as a program, Northwestern has now lost three straight games against Illinois, Maryland and Penn State. What exacerbates this skid isn’t that the ‘Cats no longer have a number accompanying their name: it’s that all three easily could’ve been wins.

In the first half of Wednesday night’s overtime loss to Penn State, NU led 17-7 as the Nittany Lions went scoreless for nearly 12 minutes, or 60% of the period. At the 7:16 mark of the half, Micah Shrewsberry’s squad had only scored 10 points.

However, as PSU struggled mightily, the Wildcats never seized opportunity or momentum, keeping the Nittany Lions within striking distance. That ended up proving catastrophic down the stretch.

A Robbie Beran triple with 4:35 remaining in the first made it 23-14 ‘Cats, but then Penn State went on an 8-0 run to trim the lead all the way to one. And after the teams re-entered the floor, it was clear that PSU was going nowhere.

Despite Brooks Barnhizer erupting for five total threes and Boo Buie pouring in 20 points on Senior Night, the game remained a seesaw affair — and that was due not to All-Big Ten candidate Jalen Pickett, but rather Camren Wynter, Seth Lundy and Andrew Funk.

While Northwestern has been anchored by its stout defense all year, Wednesday night served as a wake-up call regarding even its possible gaps. On the final shot of regulation, Funk got a good look from deep but missed. Nearly five minutes later, NU was late rotating to contest Wynter, who was left alone and sank the Wildcats on a three with 0.7 seconds left.

To lose a home game in which you’re favored is painful, but it especially stings when it’s meant to be a send-off for program cornerstones.

“Obviously heartbroken for our guys,” head coach Chris Collins said postgame. “I wanted to send them off with a big win tonight, but that happens.”

Collins also made note of the tenacity of the Big Ten, which has been supremely evident all season. That very toughness of the conference is what has the Wildcats spiraling toward possibly losing their final four regular-season games.

In the broad scheme of things, dropping a contest to Penn State doesn’t impact Northwestern’s tournament odds, which still sit at 98.7%. With 11 conference wins and 20 victories overall, the ‘Cats are still a safe bet to make the Big Dance.

But, it’s not merely about making that mark and being complacent. Collins admitted so himself.

“We just have to stay resilient,” Collins said. “We have a lot of exciting basketball ahead of us.”

That sense of security is, arguably, something no Northwestern team has ever felt. The Wildcats can hang their hat on having a high seed in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago and in making March Madness for the second time ever.

At the same time, that “exciting basketball” is now gaining an underlying sense of fear. NU’s loss put the ‘Cats in a four-way tie for third place in the conference, a logjam that likely won’t hold clarity until Sunday night. The odds of a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament are starting to slip away.

The question is: will the Wildcats rise above their recent woes, regain their composure and re-establish themselves as a powerhouse? Or, will Collins’ squad freefall at the end of the regular season — potentially damaging its confidence heading into the postseason?

Time is running out on Northwestern’s ability to turn the ship around. With only an away date with Rutgers remaining, the ‘Cats do have much to look forward to — but that forward thinking can’t supersede the present moment, which is growing more alarming by the game.