Collins’ Wildcats ready for the next step

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 17: Northwestern Wildcats head coach Chris Collins celebrates in the first half of the State Farm Chicago Legends game between the Dayton Flyers and the Northwestern Wildcats on December 17, 2016, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

The theme from “Rocky” has been used as a motivational anthem since the movie first hit theaters in the mid-70s. The story of a small-time boxer who fights his way to the world heavyweight championship has served as an inspiration to underdogs everywhere. When the Chicago Cubs found themselves down 3-1 to the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, first baseman Anthony Rizzo stripped down in the locker room and blasted the theme while shadow boxing around the room. He made it his walk-up music that night at Wrigley Field, as the team began their historic comeback.

So as the Northwestern Wildcats prepared for their last game of non-conference play against Houston Baptist University, it seemed all too appropriate to hear that iconic theme as the team was introduced in front of their home crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“We’ve been kicked down before, we’ve been disrespected, we’ve been not really prepared for by other teams,” said junior Gavin Skelly. “We’ve gone through a lot of adversity so I think we’re a mature and older group. We can handle a lot.”

Like the Cubs, the Wildcats face a similar foe – history. Since men’s basketball was first introduced at Northwestern University in 1901, the team has never made the NCAA tournament. But this season, with the first group of players recruited by Chris Collins in starring roles in his fourth year as head coach, feels different.

“We used to play that we didn’t want to lose,” Skelly added. “But now we’re playing to win.”

Now the Wildcats are entering conference play with an eight game win streak and 11-2 record, much more impressive given the competition they’ve faced so far. They’ve played more quality opponents than in previous years, including wins over Texas, Wake Forest and Dayton. Their only two losses came against Butler and Notre Dame, now both ranked in the AP Top 25, games they only lost by a combined six points.

There was no doubt this schedule was planned with tournament hopes in mind. Last season was the first step. The team finished with 20 wins, the most in program history, but played an easy non-conference schedule and struggled against the Big Ten, finishing 8-10 in the conference. But this team has more scoring options, better depth and a chip on their collective shoulder the size of the odds against them finally breaking through to the next level.

They win if …

 … Law, Lindsey and McIntosh can be a true Big Ten Big Three. Law and Lindsey are long, athletic wings who can spot up or slash. They will be a match-up problem for teams with smaller guards and give Northwestern much needed line-up flexibility against teams with bigger front-courts. McIntosh broke out last season and can be an elite floor leader and great third-option scorer. He can create his own shot and always wants the ball in his hands in late-game moments. All three are in the Top-25 in the Big Ten in scoring, and if they can be great consistently, the Wildcats will be a very dangerous team.

They lose if …

 … they can’t close. This might be the best team Northwestern has ever put in the floor, but they are not without their issues. A few times this year they’ve played down to their competition, just barely escaping with wins against Chicago State and Houston Baptist. They have to beat the teams their supposed to be in the Big Ten, starting with their opener against Penn State. But the big thing to watch is how they close. Their losses to Butler and Notre Dame were both winnable games. Northwestern led both games in the final minute of play but could not close them out. The Wildcats have the talent to compete against the best of the Big Ten, but they won’t take the next step if they cannot close the deal.

Keep an eye on …

 … the bench. Skelly has emerged as a candidate for top sixth man, who Collins has said could very well start on this team. He’s added more offense to his already great defense and incomparable motor. Freshman Isiah Brown is not afraid to shoot and can provide scoring off the bench and Nathan Taphorn is shooting 48 percent from behind the arc. Northwestern can beat you a lot of different ways, and they need to be scouted at least eight-deep.

…Sanjay Lumpkin. I had to add a second section for him. Lumpkin has always been a do-it-all guy who doesn’t always show up in the box score. But now in his senior season, he is providing a statistical impact to go along with the intangible things he continues to provide. He averaged a double-double in the team’s last six games and is the team’s best defender. The days of not hearing his name in telecasts are over.

The key stretch …

 … comes January 29 – February 18 when they face Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, Wisconsin and Maryland. They hit a similar point in their schedule last season when they lost five straight and buried themselves in the mediocre middle of the Big Ten standings. Where they sit after those five games will tell us all a lot.

This team looks like the vision Collins had in mind when he came to Northwestern. A tough, blue-collar, physical team with multiple scoring options. Law, Lindsey and McIntosh all committed to Northwestern shortly after Collins was hired. Now they are the leaders of a group poised to make history.

“The best teams are when the coaches and players are aligned as one, and we are that right now,” said Collins. “And I hope we can continue to do that at a high level because that’s how we’re going to continue to be at our best.”