Its Big Ten tournament over quickly, Northwestern still has one “L” left to give


The clock ticked down to the midway point of the first half Friday night at the United Center, and Northwestern’s advantage against Penn State was razor thin.

The Wildcats led 6-5.

Nearly 10 minutes in, that’s not a basketball score. It’s a vote count in Dixville Notch, N.H., during a presidential election.

The mind began to wander.

What a thoroughly unlikely thing, this successful season Northwestern is having. How impossible to see it coming, the rise of this team from the abyss to a No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament and a no-doubter name call on Selection Sunday.

And what a timely twist, Chris Collins’ four-month transition from the hot seat to the 10-man semifinalists list for Naismith national coach of the year.

And yet how quickly it all could end. After falling 67-65 in overtime to the No. 10-seeded Nittany Lions, these Wildcats might never win together again. Their next game, wherever it is and against whomever it is, easily could be their last. Less than a week from now, it might be all over.

Doesn’t the end always come too soon?

But one thing at a time. The game against Penn State eventually got good, dragging the mind back into the fray. Northwestern has a distinct way of doing this, of grinding down the pace of play until it becomes almost difficult to keep watching but then seizing a moment and surging, defending with all its might, hanging around — despite its modest-at-best talent — and then pulling it out late.

Guard Boo Buie gave the Wildcats a chance, defending the bigger, stronger Jalen Pickett, a fellow all-league player, diving all over the floor, creating offensive chances out of next to nothing. Forward Brooks Barnhizer, in the thick of everything, played his finest game. Robbie Beran, Ty Berry and Matthew Nicholson did what they do, which is never anything spectacular — maybe not even anything memorable — but almost unfailingly more than it looks like on the stats sheet.

Alas, it wasn’t quite enough. And now they’re really operating without a safety net. Lose again and that’s all she wrote.

“What I want them to do now is, [after] we find out on Sunday, we need to go, we need to be loose, we need to play with reckless abandon, we need to be locked in, we need to play our defense, we need to shoot our shots,” Collins said. “There’s no reason for us to be tight, to be on our heels in any way.”

It sometimes seems there’s no reason for any of this to even be happening. Northwestern had never been higher than a No. 6 seed in the conference tournament, hadn’t finished the regular season as high as a second-place tie since the 1950s. In most major programs, a 12-8 league record wouldn’t even be a historical footnote. At Northwestern, it’s the best conference winning percentage since the 1940s.

Not only did Collins enter his 10th season in danger of losing his job, but his team was expected to be awful. Pete Nance had transferred to North Carolina. Ryan Young had transferred to Duke. Buie and Chase Audige were coming back, but what good had that done Collins so far?

Now, Buie and Audige, in that order, are all-Big Ten first- and second-teamers, which no one could have seen coming. Northwestern hasn’t had a first-teamer and a second-teamer in the same season since Rick Lapossa and Rich Falk in 1963-64, but you probably knew all those details already.

Meanwhile, Collins is on the same Naismith list as Kansas’ Bill Self, Houston’s Kelvin Sampson, Purdue’s Matt Painter and Marquette’s Shaka Smart, among other heavy hitters. It’s crazy how life works.

“What these guys have done this year, the way they’ve rallied around each other, the way they’ve rallied around the coaching staff … ,” Collins said before trailing off in thought.

“Everyone knows coming into this year there was a lot of negativity from the outside about where we were, where we were headed, what was going on with the program. We never wavered.”

Whenever the season ends, it’s going to be difficult for Collins and the Wildcats to keep a grip on all the qualities that have made them remarkable. We know this because the 2016-17 team that finally broke through to the school’s first men’s NCAA Tournament was unable — despite bringing four starters back the following season — to sustain the good times and instead became a cautionary tale. The next five campaigns were brutal marches into Big Ten oblivion, with no better than a 10th-place finish.

It’s not easy to win at Northwestern. How’s that for an understatement?

All these Wildcats have are one another and — might it be? — a handful of games left to play together. Or maybe just one more game.

Either way, they’ve come so far.

“This is a special group of guys,” Collins said. “They said, ‘You know what? We believe in each other. We believe in our coaches. We’re going to go out there and show we can do it.’

“And they did.”


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