Simpson: Huge win a sign of change

Jake Simpson

“Did they all start taking steroids?”

That was the amazed reaction of a Daily copy editor upon learning that Northwestern had knocked off No. 7 Michigan State on the road, 70-63, just four days after upsetting No. 17 Minnesota at home.

They may not be passing around needles. But there’s something cooking in Evanston.

See, you can be sure of a couple things at NU. The winters will suck. There’ll be some sort of controversy during sorority rush. And the basketball teams will be the laughingstock of the Big Ten.

Except this week, someone forgot to give the Wildcats the script.

Just last Thursday, the Cats were breaking our hearts as usual, blowing a 14-point halftime lead at home, losing by two to Purdue after leading for all but 30 seconds. The defeat dropped NU to 0-4 in the Big Ten, seemingly putting to the rest the hopeful rumblings that surfaced when the Cats jumped out to a 7-1 start, their best in seven years.

Their season was as dead as coach Bill Carmody’s future at NU. The only race the Cats were in was to the bottom of the Big Ten standings.

Then came Sunday, when Carmody’s squad shocked the fans at Welsh-Ryan Arena by actually showing up to play in the second half. They avoided the expected collapse and beat a ranked opponent for the first time in 83 games.

It was a big win. But few heads turned. The Cats were at home, against a Gophers’ team that had to be looking ahead to tomorrow’s showdown with the No. 18 Boilermakers. They attempted 16 more free throws than the Gophers. And despite scoring 20 points, junior Kevin Coble went just 5-13 from the floor and was still without a breakout game this season.

It was just a fluke. Right?

The oddsmakers certainly thought so, making No. 7 Michigan State a 12 1/2-point home favorite over NU going into Wednesday’s showdown. Even when the Cats trailed by a single point at halftime, a certain Daily sports editor adamantly predicted a 12-point win for the Spartans. I mean, they had won 28 straight games at home, beating every Big Ten team at least once in the process. We couldn’t beat that, right?

Whoops.

What I didn’t figure on was that maybe, just maybe, Carmody and his players have put it all together. NU held Michigan State to just 29 second-half points, stifling leading scorer Raymar Morgan and holding him to a single point. When the Spartans pulled ahead 49-48 with seven minutes left, the Cats responded with gut-check three-pointers from sharpshooter Craig Moore and point guard Michael Thompson.

The stage then shifted to Coble, who finally looked like the offensive force he was supposed to be this year. The junior abused every defender the Spartans threw at him, including Morgan, who spent the first ten minutes of the second half breathing in Coble’s fumes.

Even in the pressure-packed final seconds, the team stayed poised. Thompson went 4-of-4 from the line in the final 30 seconds to secure the win.

It was a far cry from six days ago, when NU missed seven free throws down the stretch in the come-from-ahead loss to Purdue. Then again, maybe that game was the fluke.

The Cats didn’t beat the dregs of the Big Ten – they threw a pair of haymakers that KO’d the best teams in the conference. Michigan State and Minnesota were a combined 31-3 before they ran into the newly minted Cats’ juggernaut. Throw in the near miss against Purdue and NU has outplayed arguably the top three teams in the Big Ten.

That’s not a fluke. It’s the positive change this campus has been expecting since Carmody became the coach nine years ago. Just listen to Spartans’ coach Tom Izzo.

“I think we just lost to a team that was better than us,” he said.

These Cats are here to stay.