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Northwestern Wildcats never had the same spark in disappointing season

The Northwestern Wildcats season ended with disappointment as the team bowed out of the Big Ten Tournament with a whimper.

Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern Wildcats

The energy was flowing. Down by two points one team was going to find the will to win the game. And it was the team desperate for a win to make the NCAA Tournament.

In went one contested 3-pointer out of a timeout. Then another. Suddenly momentum was flowing in one direction. And suddenly confidence was contagious.

The Northwestern Wildcats had that feeling at one point. It was a year ago to the day exactly.

That is when Nathan Taphorn looped a pass across the length of the court to Dererk Pardon for a layin that would go down in history. It was deserving of constant replays and waves of nostalgia. Both Taphorn and Pardon were in Madison Square Garden — Pardon playing his junior year and Taphorn as a fan in his first year as an alumnus.

The Northwestern team that was on the court was a very different one from that year ago. The fight was not nearly the same. It was not there for this team.

Penn State was the one burning off nine straight points or more in the final stages of the second half, turning NU’s carefully maintained one-point lead into a virtual rout. Tony Carr drained 3-pointer after 3-pointer, often over a contested hand in scoring 25 points in a 65-57 Penn State win at the Big Ten Tournament.

Northwestern’s season is over. A season that was meant to be a confirmation of their tournament breakthrough last year never was. The team could not get out of the gates, lacking the fire. It seemed like NU felt it was going to show up and make the tournament, forgetting the decades of fight and grit needed the first time.

There have been plenty of reports as to why that was the case. Everything from the trek from Evanston to Allstate Arena in Rosemont to a team that felt confident it could reach into those reserves and find the will to win from experience. Then there were other things no one would ever confirm — players looking to expand their own games rather than fit with teammates or players losing focus on the court.

Coach Chris Collins admitted at one point he trusted his senior leaders would reign everyone in at the right moment. His own youth as a head coach caught up to him too.

The Wildcats never really understood how to deal with success and expectation. It was clear something was just off about this team.

It was clear when Texas Tech (a team that turned out to be good in its own right) throttled Northwestern on a neutral court. It became clearer when Trae Young did the same a few weeks later. The Wildcats did not have the same grit and determination on defense.

Chris Collins, ever the Mike Krzyzewski disciple, reluctantly switched to a 2-3 matchup zone to try to create some stability. He found it for a while. Northwestern began to flash some of the potential talent it had. Defeating Michigan seemed to set Northwestern on a long, but doable path.

Then the injuries set in.

Bryant McIntosh was dealing with a knee injury since December. He was not able to get into the lane with the easy he had for much of his four-year career. A shoulder injury late in the year knocked him out completely. It was a minor miracle he played through it all in the big Ten Tournament.

Vic Law got hurt too, missing the last several games. Without his length, athleticism and shooting, Northwestern’s offense seemed to slow to a crawl. The Wildcats already lacked the spark. Now they were depleted and relying on players who were struggling to step up.

Anthony Gaines at least found some life toward the end of the season.

Collins was willing to try anything to keep the season alive. McIntosh was willing to sacrifice himself too. There was no way he was not playing. And he gave everything he had, as he had done throughout his four years.

Northwestern played up to its potential once again for a good chunk of the night. The ball moved well and the team got inside to Dererk Pardon and Barret Benson in a surprise pairing. The team played with real energy and real fight.

That was a more-than-welcome sign for the Wildcats. There are good players coming down the pipe. Anthony Gaines especially stepped up and played strong in the finale.

But it was still a finale. McIntosh was not the player he was with seven points on 3-for-12 shooting. The Wildcats lost a lot in the few minutes he was off the floor. But it was clear he was not 100 percent either.

Scottie Lindsey, the other senior starter, continued a confounding year, making just 4 of 13 shots. He had 12 points and eight rebounds before fouling out. Even without his shot going down, his presence calmed the team on defense especially.

The Wildcats will lose a lot in those two players and a grinder in Gavin Skelly. But they also did not get the most out of their two senior leaders this year. And that will be a big reason why the Wildcats are going home and finishing with a disappointing season.

It was a big reason why Penn State found the will and drive to win at the end. Northwestern lacked that all season.

This was not the season Northwestern wanted. The Wildcats’ big expectations never came to fruition.

Coming back home with a long offseason — and tons of talent coming in with the currently 21st-best recruiting class in the country according to 247Sports — and a little bit of drive could set Northwestern back on the right path.

It just was never there this year. A lesson learned for a young program. And a season squandered.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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