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Northwestern basketball has developed a winning culture

There is a standard of excellence in Evanston.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s flash back to roughly one year ago.

It was another neon night inside the Northwestern student section, another East Coast team was visiting Welsh-Ryan, and another tight contest brought the arena to its feet.

With 74 seconds left in the game, Julian Roper II drilled a three to give the Wildcats a four-point lead. To us in the stands, the game felt over, but that was not even close to the case. A pair of free throws cut the lead back to one possession, and Cam Spencer splashed a triple to give Rutgers the lead with 15 seconds left. With one possession left, Boo Buie had a chance to win it, but he dribbled the ball off his leg, and the ball rolled out of bounds for a turnover. It was game over for the Wildcats.

Fast forward 372 days, and last night’s game tells a different story. With under a minute left, Northwestern clung to a two-point lead; however, Jahmir Young had his own idea. As the shot clock ticked down to the final seconds, Young pulled out his best James Harden impression, sliding back beyond the arc and connecting on a triple with a hand in his face, giving Maryland the lead. As I said to Adam Beck in the press box right after the shot, “It’s just his night.”

This time around, however, the ‘Cats didn’t crumble under the pressure. The shot clock was turned off, so NU could have held for the final shot, but Buie saw the open lane and took it, driving right by Donta Scott for a layup, taking the lead right back for the ‘Cats. When Maryland brought the ball down the floor, everyone knew who was taking the final shot. Young tried to get downhill to the rim, but tight defense from Buie made Young pull up from the foul line and take an off-balance shot — no good.

The difference between a year ago and last night lies in one cliche word: culture. The Wildcats have established a culture that expects to win each night, the mark of a good team and program. It doesn’t matter the circumstance or the opponent, NU finds a way to compete and have a chance to pull out a victory every time it hits the court.

“We have a winning character,” head coach Chris Collins said postgame. “The only agenda in that locker room is winning.”

The culture shift starts with Buie. Collins told the media postgame that Agent Zero’s desire to win above all else trickles down through the rest of the team — exactly the type of leadership expected from a perennial All-American. No matter the role he takes on during the game, Buie’s sole mission is to come away victorious.

On the final offensive possession, Buie remained calm, ready to drain the clock and hoist one last shot, but he saw a hole in the defense and attacked. Collins trusted the fifth-year to make the right play, and he didn’t disappoint. Even after playing 36 minutes, Buie wanted the assignment to guard Young on the final possession. It seemed like Young could not miss, but Buie did just enough to force a tough shot.

He doesn’t care if he has “no points and 25 assists, or 25 points and two assists,” the win is all that matters. When your star player is completely bought in and devoted to winning, it sets the standard for the rest of the program and establishes a culture that will remain after No. 0 departs from Evanston.

“I don’t think about points. I think about winning,” Buie said postgame.

As Collins said, a winning mentality “trickles down to the rest of the guys,” and Matthew Nicholson embodies what a winning culture looks like. It has not been a good year for the senior, being pulled out of the starting five due to poor play. Collins can say it doesn’t change anything, but he doesn’t move a two-year starter to the bench for no reason.

After being benched, Nicholson could have easily pouted and checked out; instead, he looks reinvigorated. Last night, he played 31 minutes, scoring 10 points and grabbing seven boards. Collins said postgame that he thinks Nicholson’s best games of the season off the bench, and he’s right. A good culture can hold someone accountable and help them bounce back because winning is more important than individual performance.

The same can be said with Ty Berry. Berry, who had a tough night from the field, stepped up a knocked down four huge free throws to seal the victory. It’s not easy to remain focused when the ball is not finding the net, but No. 3 continued to do everything right, grabbing rebounds and playing good defense. When one of your star players is doing dirty work, willing the team to victory, that is the sign of a great culture.

For a program that has not had much success winning in the past, seeing the culture Collins and Co. have built is nothing short of immaculate. It does not matter who wears the jersey, the culture and standard of excellence have been set. While the results will vary, Northwestern will remain competitive for years to come because it has the makings of a winning culture.