It’s been a trying season for the Northwestern men’s basketball team.
The Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in school history. They won their first round game against Vanderbilt, and came close to beating Gonzaga, the eventual national championship runner-up.
Northwestern might have even won that game if it weren’t for a missed call. The Bulldogs’ Zach Collins blocked a layup from Wildcat Dererk Pardon, but Collins’ hand was inside the basket. The NCAA later admitted the play should have been called for goaltending. Northwestern was down five with five minutes left in the game, and there’s no telling what would have transpired if the call had been made differently. Still, the play left the Wildcats wondering, what could have been.
Since then, things have taken a turn for the worse.
The celebration of the Cinderella team from last year is gone, and what’s left is a middling, 14-10 team running out of opportunities to prove itself worthy of another NCAA Tournament bid.
The stark decline in Northwestern’s production is a surprise considering it returned four of its five starters from last season. One of those returners, guard Bryant McIntosh, was pegged to be one of the best players in the conference.
McIntosh was one of just three unanimous selections for the preseason All-Big Ten team — along with Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ. McIntosh flourished in the NCAA Tournament last season, scoring 25 and 20 points, respectively, in the Wildcats’ two games.
Since then, McIntosh’s production, like his team’s, has declined. He’s averaging over two points fewer per game this season, and he hasn’t shown as many flashes of brilliance as before, scoring over 20 points in just three games all season.
The Daily sat down with McIntosh at Big Ten Media Day in October — before things started to go wrong for Northwestern — to discuss how things had changed in Evanston, how expectations had affected the team and how last season’s game against Michigan propelled the Wildcats into the tournament.
The Michigan Daily: As you’ve become more successful, and the team’s become more successful, is there any more added pressure involved?
Bryant McIntosh: I don’t think it’s pressure. I don’t think any of us look at it. I think it’s something we kind of expect to be honest. We think we’ve earned it. It’s just kind of something that we look at as, ‘We deserve it.’ We’ve put in enough work. I think our resume from the previous year shows that we’re one of the better teams coming back. We also realize that we do have a lot of guys coming back, but just because it says we should be good on paper doesn’t guarantee it. Like, we still have to continue to work and be hungry and still attack the days to prepare for this season.
TMD: As there has been more success with Northwestern basketball, has there been a culture change, not even on the team, but around campus?
BM: We’re probably recognized more on campus. Like, fans didn’t follow us when I first got to campus. But the best story I have for you is having a student hang (a picture of) the goaltending of Zach Collins on the shot last year. That speaks to just how much the culture has changed at Northwestern — having fans that really are invested and care. That’s probably the best fan story I have for you.
TMD: Last year against Michigan was obviously a huge game. When that happened, did you know, ‘Alright, we have a better chance of the tournament?’
BM: Yeah, I think we all kind of knew that we needed to win one more — one more game — to kind of ensure that we were in. And there was some pressure on us, but we kind of addressed it right before that game, and just said, ‘If we want to make the tournament, then we’ve got to win this game.’ And we won that, and then we just continued to help our resume in the Big Ten Tournament.
TMD: Having had that and the NCAA Tournament experience, how has that helped the team this year?
BM: It’s good. I mean, it just makes us even more veteran than just having a bunch of seniors. We’ve actually already been there now. And I think a lot of people anticipated this being the year that we would go. Having that already under our belt, having that experience, I think, can only be beneficial for our next run.
TMD: With your own personal accolades, how have you stayed focused on the season at hand, knowing that people expect certain things out of you?
BM: Like I said, the accolades, the rankings of our team, it’s something we kind of all think we deserved and worked for. But just because it says it on paper doesn’t mean it’s reality. So you still have to continue to work. I also always go back to the fact that I was a three-star recruit from the middle of nowhere that nobody saw or recognized — didn’t think I was that good. And I’ve continued to prove people wrong. So I understand there’s people out there that will see the list, and it will motivate them. I see the guys on the other list, and I allow it to motivate me too. I think it will be a good battle between the Big Ten guards that are on the list and not on the list. There’s a lot of great players in this league. So it means a lot, but it’s preseason still too.