The history of Northwestern basketball operates in two realms: Before the 2016-17 season and after.
Prior to last season’s magical run, the goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history reigned over everything. Success was heavily predicated on breaking through that ceiling.
“That was as great a pressure as I probably ever have been a part of with a team,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins at Big Ten Media Day. “Just with the media and the fan base and the alumni and everybody wanting it so bad.”
Then it happened.
The Wildcats ripped off a magical run — including a dramatic, buzzer beating win over Michigan — on the way to an NCAA Tournament berth. Not stopping there, they topped Vanderbilt in the first round and nearly upset No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the second round. The loss couldn’t mitigate the most historic season in program history.
But expectations are merely a product of past success. So when one goal is achieved, it becomes a baseline for the future. Beyond a single NCAA Tournament appearance, Collins sought sustainability.
“I can tell you when I came to Northwestern, the NCAA Tournament was a goal,” Collins said, “but it wasn’t the end goal.”
With guards Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey, and forwards Vic Law and Dererk Pardon, returning for another season, expectations shot through the roof. The four veterans accounted for 68 percent of the team’s scoring during its 2016-17 campaign.
The heart of the team — the “cour fore,” as Collins called them — that captivated the hearts of fans and national media was back. It seemed the most successful team in program history could only improve.
But even from the beginning of the year, Collins cautioned against that sentiment of inevitability. A long-time assistant under Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and son of long-time NBA coach Doug Collins, the Wildcats’ coach knew better than to assume anything.
“We don’t talk about last year,” Collins said. “I told the guys, like, ‘there’s nothing to talk about.’ Every team is different. Every season is different. … And if you don’t have that edge, if you don’t have that chemistry, the fine line from winning and losing in this league is a very, very narrow margin.”
Perhaps more often than expected, Collins and his team have found themselves on the wrong side of that narrow margin.
Northwestern enters the game Monday bruised and battered, sitting below .500 in conference play and with a middling 13-9 record overall. Less than contending for an increasingly doubtful NCAA Tournament bid, a veteran-laden Northwestern team is merely left contending for its pride.
While McIntosh, Pardon, Lindsey and Law have sustained their statistical success, the team as a whole has largely fallen flat.
Slowly but surely, though, the Wildcats are starting to play up to snuff.
Last Saturday, they avenged an early-season loss to Penn State, topping the Nittany Lions 70-61. Three days later, they went to Minneapolis and took down the Golden Gophers for the second time.
“There’s no room for more slip-ups,” Collins told media this past week. “We know there’s a lot of ball left, we know all the goals we had are still attainable.”
Any hope of attaining the most immediate goal — returning to the NCAA Tournament — hinges on Monday’s game at Crisler Center. A resume-boosting win at Michigan would send the Wildcats toward a frenzied finish to the season. A loss would almost certainly doom them.
And that’s the reality of Northwestern basketball post 2016-17. There’s a new foundation for success, and close is no longer close enough.