In Northwestern’s final regular season game of 2016 on Sunday, emotions were running high. Not only was it Senior Day for Tre Demps, Alex Olah and transfer Joey Van Zegeren, but the Wildcats were on the verge of setting a regular season wins record in Chris Collins’ third season as head coach.
With 20 victories in the regular season, Northwestern would reach a height they have never experienced as a program. They had won 20 games before in ’09-’10 and ’10-’11, but those both included postseason wins. It would also be their eighth conference win of the year, their best mark since they won eight in ’11-’12.
The Wildcats came out strong against Nebraska, led by Demps and Olah. They led by as many as 20 in the first half, with the two seniors scoring 20 of Northwestern’s first 29 points of the half.
Northwestern started off the second half cold, as Nebraska was able to cut the lead down to nine, but the seniors stepped up when it mattered most.
“I just love those two guys,” Collins said of Demps and Olah after the game. “To me, they’re a part of a core that will always be very special to me. I’m just so happy for them that they were able to play like this on their Senior day”.
Demps finished the game with 17 points and Olah had 19 points and 8 rebounds in front of his family, who were seeing Olah play in person for the first time in his collegiate career.
While winning 20 games is an accomplishment the program is and should be proud of, Collins hopes this is only the beginning of Northwestern’s rise in an extremely competitive Big Ten conference. But Collins knows that in this day and age with a results-now mentality, he’ll need to work as hard as anyone to exercise patience.
“There’s no one more competitive and no one more impatient than me”, Collins said with a slight smile. “I want to win championships. I want to go to Final Fours. I want to win league titles. But the way we have to built it here, it does take a little time.”
Reinventing a program the way Northwestern hoped they would when they brought Collins in three years ago isn’t exactly an overnight task, but they are beginning to build a core and a mentality that breeds winning.
“We’re continuing to move forward,” Collins added. “I really love our core, I love where we are now [and] I love where we’re headed.”
Although Collins’ goal of making the NCAA tournament will almost definitely come up short again this season, they still have an opportunity to make some noise in the Big Ten tournament, which begins for them Thursday against Michigan, a team they came very close to beating just a few weeks ago.
In fact, the Wildcats made it a game up until the final four minutes when Michigan’s long distance shooting finally started to click and they pulled away for good. For most of the game Northwestern did a really good job of defending the three point shot, an area where Michigan has struggled in since losing Caris LeVert to injury.
In a report from the Detroit Free Press, Michigan shot 42% from long range in their first eight conference games, going 6-2. In the final 10 games, the Wolverines only shot 33%, going 2-8. Unfortunately, one of those wins came against Northwestern despite 19 points from Olah, who has played some of his best games against the Wolverines.
“I thought we did some things in the first game that kept them off balance and now they’re going to be ready for it,” Collins said.
Still, Northwestern will have to play a near perfect game on Thursday in order to beat Michigan, and they have struggled to play consistently from start to finish against some of their better competition. In their last meeting with Michigan it came down to toughness toward the end of the game, something Collins has continued to stressed with his players.
Since their loss at Michigan, Northwestern won three in a row to finish out the season. They are hoping that momentum will help them pull off the upset and open up some eyes to what this team aspires to be in the Big Ten for years to come.