The moment and the stage was big for the Northwestern Wildcats. On a Saturday in October, the Ohio State Buckeyes were in town bringing ESPN’s College GameDay along with them. The campus was alive and Northwestern was experiencing a peak the program had never had before.
This, in their estimation, was not some flash in the pan. The Wildcats were 4-0 and ranked. They had just snapped their infamous bowl game losing streak. And it felt like they were prepared to take another big leap.
This was their moment. And, on the field, Northwestern did everything they could but win the game. The Wildcats lost by 10 points on a backdoor cover fumble return touchdown after leading for much of the fourth quarter.
They did not win that day, but in front of a national audience, the Wildcats showed they belonged. Their program was going to be one the Big Ten would reckon with that year, at least, and beyond at most.
That is not how things played out. The season collapsed from that point.
Kain Colter dealt with injuries — and the simmering divisions the union movement may have caused (rightly or wrongly). Venric Mark was never the same and did not play for Northwestern again after that season.
The Wildcats lost seven straight games, failing to win even a conference game until the finale against the Fighting Illini.
The 2013 Wildcats football team was a good team. It had plenty of talent. But everything was off. The team failed to win close games — taking heartbreaking losses to Iowa, Nebraska (ugh, the Hail Mary) and Michigan in triple overtime. That team — that team — failed to make a bowl game. It felt to some extent all of Northwestern’s momentum stopped. They had suffered the dreaded hangover.
The same thing is happening now to the 2018 Northwestern men’s basketball team.
The Wildcats started this year ranked with even Clark Kellogg picking Northwestern as his sleeper Final Four team. There were big expectations. The only rotation player Northwestern lost was Sanjay Lumpkin, a grinder who did not contribute much scoring but helped build the team’s defensive culture.
There were fears the Wildcats might lose some of their edge without him, but there was still a ton of talent.
The Wildcats came slow out of the gate. Then came a 92-88 loss to Creighton at home. And an 85-49 loss to Texas Tech. And a 104-78 loss to Trae Young and Oklahoma.
Northwestern lost all these critical non-conference games — plus a bad loss at Georgia Tech at the buzzer — and the tournament seemed to slip away.
At this point — entering Tuesday’s game against Minnesota, the team is 13-9, 4-5 in the Big Ten and No. 84 in the KenPom ratings — the tournament is a pipe dream. At this point too, it seems like the NIT would be a bit of a stretch. This Northwestern team is not the same. And it is plainly obvious too.
The Wildcats’ defense is nowhere near as good as last year. Chris Collins had to capitulate and switch to a zone defense just to get the defense back under control.
The team’s offense has also been anemic. Scottie Lindsey is shooting 38.1 percent from the floor and 30.7 percent from beyond the arc. And he is the team’s leading scorer.
Bryant McIntosh has struggled on offense too, shooting 39.1 percent from the floor. He has been good distributing the ball, but Northwestern has had to ask too much of him again.
The team has just been off.
Maybe teams are gunning for them a bit harder. Maybe there is complacency from having finally broken the rock and reached the NCAA Tournament. The glowing documentary that aired after Tuesday’s win over Minnesota had a tinge of familiar nostalgia.
It might simply be everyone is too close to how special last season was that they have been unable to recapture and recreate that magic again. Maybe the trek out to Allstate Arena for each home game is a bit more than everyone expected.
Perhaps there was no way to prevent this. This team needed its own identity. It needed its opportunity to cut its own path. And that is difficult for a team and a program that had never experienced this much success before.
Every program has to learn how to deal with success. A hangover is natural for a program experiencing these highs.
The question is how Chris Collins responds. Can he keep recruiting strongly — as he has — and build off the base he built last year.
This is the difficult part of building a program. How does a coach respond to adversity or the team taking a step back. This year has definitely been a step back. A team with great expectations has failed to deliver.
It is a common theme at Northwestern.
But there is something instructive in the football team too. While the Wildcats missed a bowl the following year, they have put together two 10-win seasons in the last three years. Unarguably, Northwestern football is at its zenith and its best run in program history. A new facility — like the one being belt inside the remains of Welsh-Ryan Arena — will certainly help them continue to grow.
Overall, the future remains bright. Where this is a disappointing season for Northwestern is certainly a good thing. And the Wildcats have proven themselves spunky enough to steal a victory over some good teams and beat the poor teams on their schedule — for the most part.
The hangover will wear off. And the Wildcats will get their opportunity again.