Northwestern Hoping They’ve Turned a Corner

Something was different walking into Welsh-Ryan arena Thursday night. All of the hype of the 13-1 start had worn off. The excitement surrounding home games against teams like Maryland and Michigan State was a mere memory. The crowd was smaller, the expectations were lower and through all of that, that 13-1 team suddenly re-emerged.

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This was a looser team, swinging the ball around and taking shots with confidence. There were smiles all around several times late in the game, a rare sight on the court especially lately. Northwestern needed this game. Not just to get themselves back in the win column after a five game losing stream, but to move forward and prove that this is a program headed in the right direction after all.

It helps when you’re playing a team that plays nothing even resembling defense. A team that entered the night 0-10 in Big Ten play and nursing an 11 game losing streak of their own.

The game stats wouldn’t surprise you in such a lopsided victory. Tre Demps led the way with 23 points and added eight assists and four rebounds. Bryant McIntosh had 20 points to go with six rebounds and three assists, which helped him set the new all-time school record for assists in a season.

“One thing that we can take away from this is that we responded and we came out and from the get-go we played the way we wanted to, we played with a lot of energy,” McIntosh said after the game. “We could have been beaten down and we weren’t. We played together and it was a fun game to play.”

Northwestern’s 82-58 victory over Minnesota was not just a win; it was a reminder. A reminder of what this team is and what this team is not.

“We’re not the team that lost to four straight Top-20 teams, three of them on the road,” Chris Collins said post-game. “We’re the team that has 15 wins and we tried to focus on that and I thought it kind of re-energized us a little bit. All we talked about was getting that 16th win and I thought our guys really did a good job of carrying that out tonight.”

In terms of level of competition, the worst is probably behind them. Upcoming games against Illinois, Rutgers, Penn State and Nebraska should look like this one. Games against Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan may not, but they are nowhere near the level of competition they saw during that stretch against Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana and Iowa.

They have a good chance to win 20 games this season, an improvement over 15 last season and 14 the season before. This team is heading in the right direction but make no mistake about it, they are still nowhere close to the caliber of team that can find their way to the NCAA tournament in this conference overcrowded with elite basketball programs. Not yet, anyway. But that doesn’t mean you won’t see this team fight.

Collins came out to the post game press conference with very little left of his voice, something he and McIntosh credit to his unrelenting drive and dedication over the course of the challenging past couple weeks.

“I’m an emotional guy and I try to give my guys everything that I have,” said Collins. “When you lose you don’t get a lot of sleep so I think it’s just an accumulation of being in the fight and I’ll be better tomorrow.”

From the energy walking into the stadium to the deja vu of last season beginning to seep into everyone’s minds, this game had all of the makings of a letdown, against a Minnesota team hungry for their first conference win and coming off some close games against tough opponents.

But the difference between the Wildcats of this season and the ones of past seasons is that they are learning from their mistakes sooner, bouncing back quicker and trusting the people around them more.

“We got on the same page this week and I felt this was the best we have communicated together probably since my team here,” said McIntosh. “I felt we were on a really good page together and I thought it showed.”

The hope is that this is not just a turning of the page for this season but for the program itself, a goal Collins put into place from the day arrived. McIntosh has emerged as the leader of this young core, filled to the brim with potential for the next couple of years. But if you ask any of them, they’re just focused on getting win number 17.

They’ll have their chance on Tuesday against Ohio State.