ROSEMONT, Ill. — The easy thing to do is to just forget the beginning of this Northwestern season ever happened.
That Northwestern didn’t get rocked by Texas Tech by nearly 40. That Northwestern didn’t slide back to being the team that couldn’t close games and wasn’t able to break through or remain consistently relevant.
They needed this to happen. They had to be humbled, beat down and reminded that they aren’t "all that" — yet. They had to learn how to win again, so they could feel the euphoria and play with the urgency that drives winners, not the overconfidence that can be the drug for unfulfilled expectations.
They had to lose to win again.
“It was a really low point,’’ Northwestern senior guard Bryant McIntosh said. “We lost our identity as our program. We got away from what made us so successful. It was disappointing, but it was a reality check.’’
How could this happen? Please, enlighten us on how Northwestern could get into the NCAA tournament for the first time — EVER — beat Vanderbilt, nearly take down eventual runner-up Gonzaga, return essentially everyone and then fall flat to start this season?
March Madness brackets: How do seeds perform in the Final Four?
“We were complacent,’’ McIntosh said. “Everybody was coming back and we figured it was the same team right away. That’s not reality. We had to have the desire to win and we didn’t.’’
Northwestern lost to Creighton by four at home a week before Texas Tech went full house on the Wildcats at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. The practice week after the loss to the Red Raiders was back to basics. Northwestern gear was gone. Locker rooms went bare. This was Coach K type stuff that Chris Collins knew he had to channel.
“Our practice habits changed,’’ said senior forward Gavin Skelly. “Our mentality changed. Our respect for one another. Our respect for our coaches. We had to start from scratch again. I’ve been here for three years and we rebuilt it but then it crashed in a week. We had to restart. We got too comfortable. Coach said we got fat hearing about how great you are.’’
So how do you right a team? You guard. OK, so you may not win every game, but at least you defend with purpose and passion. The Wildcats held Sacred Heart to 50. They lost at the buzzer to Georgia Tech, but in a 52-51 game. They beat Illinois 72-68 in overtime and “held” Purdue to 74 in a five-point loss at Mackey Arena. Then they blitzed Chicago State and Valparaiso this week at their adopted home, Allstate Arena. Chicago State scored 31. Valpo, which was undefeated before losing to Purdue (by 30), Ball State (at the buzzer), and then Northwestern (by 34), was without its best player. Tevonn Walker is out with mono, and coach Matt Lottich doesn’t have a timetable for his return.
Lottich said after the Thursday night beat down that his team didn’t compete or contest. It was the type of sullen commentary that Collins could have issued post Texas Tech.
But the message he sent worked. The experienced players, the ones who will forever be part of this school’s lore, locked down defensively. McIntosh also credits the addition of former Wright State coach Billy Donlon to the staff as an added benefit to focusing on defense. But sometimes it is just about work.
“We redirected ourselves and focused on ourselves,’’ Collins said. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done in positioning and on-ball defense, post defense and we’re being rewarded for that.’’
Collins called the Texas Tech loss a real low point. But even though they've lost two games since then, he is celebrating the improvement. The legs are back. The bounce has returned.
“Sometimes you have to get beat in order to rediscover what makes you good,’’ said Collins. “You never like to go through it. It’s not fun because of the heightened expectations it was a lot more public and that’s OK. We had to go through that.’’
Urgency has returned and you can see the energy from the bench. The reserves have made quite a statement. Skelly, Barrett Benson, Anthony Gaines, Jordan Ash and Isiah Brown give the Wildcats plenty of options. Vic Law, McIntosh, Derek Pardon, Scottie Lindsey and Aaron Falzon are as ready to play five as any in the Big Ten. Collins said this team is long, athletic and no longer a step slow.
But once the Big Ten starts, where does Northwestern fit? Consider the Wildcats nudging to get into the top three with Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State and Maryland likely. The Wildcats are done with Purdue and play Big Ten favorite Michigan State only once — and at home -- Feb. 17.
No need to panic. The losses happened. They won’t disappear. But they were needed to put Northwestern back in position to make history again. No Northwestern team has ever been to two NCAA tournaments in a row. Hard to do when they had never been to one prior to last March.