Jochnau: The time is now, Northwestern


Daily file photo by Rachel Dubner

Bryant McIntosh defends the perimeter. The junior point guard is a focal point in Northwestern’s pursuit of an NCAA Tournament bid this season.

Garrett Jochnau, Sports Editor

Men’s Basketball

On Feb. 18, Northwestern nearly lost to Rutgers. Against the Big Ten’s punching bag, the Wildcats came within a minute of imploding, offering a hopeless offensive performance and a laughable effort on the boards.

Yet, they didn’t implode, and despite all signs indicating otherwise, nobody really expected them to.

After the game, junior guard Bryant McIntosh said this winning mentality proved NU was a reinvented team, that the historically-futile Cats had taken an important step forward in redefining their identity.

But Tuesday’s loss to Illinois cast doubt on his claims. And if NU is truly going to crystallize its transformation into a successful program, it can’t waste time to start winning again.

The Cats enter Saturday’s road matchup with Indiana having lost four of their last six, including two to the lowly Fighting Illini.

NU’s stunning victory in Madison, where McIntosh exploded to lead NU over then-No. 7 Wisconsin represented the lone highlight of the stretch. The upset momentarily forced the Cats into national headlines and briefly offered proof that they had moved past decades of futility.

But after NU’s recent slog, the win looks less like a harbinger of future success and more like a fluke — a fluke that could well save the Cats’ NCAA Tournament hopes but is hardly guaranteed to do so.

Coach Chris Collins always speaks of the Big Ten schedule like an 18-round boxing match. With each bell, his team has another chance to start fresh — to shrug off the disappointments of rounds prior and deliver a knockout punch.

But with just three rounds remaining, NU looks poised for a split decision, leaving its tournament fate to the whims of the selection committee.

It’s not too late, though, for the Cats to write their own story and essentially take the choice out of the committee’s hands.

There are three rounds remaining before the Big Ten Tournament, two of which — against Indiana and Michigan — are extremely winnable. But, after their recent dud against the Illinois, the Cats can’t take anything for granted.

Time is running out for NU to deliver the decisive blow and separate itself from conference competitors. But if the Cats are going to correct their course, they have to show up in full for the closing slate.

It starts Saturday, against a Hoosiers squad that already fell to NU in late January. It’s a prime opportunity for a program-record 21st regular-season win, and if the Cats are truly the reinvented team McIntosh says they are, they can’t let it pass them by.

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Twitter: @GarrettJochnau