Men’s Basketball: Program-changing senior class to close tenure mired in mediocrity


Daily file photo Noah Frick-Alofs

Bryant McIntosh drives to the hoop. The senior guard is in danger of missing his last home game Thursday with a shoulder injury.

Joseph Wilkinson, Sports Editor

Men’s Basketball

The first home conference game that seniors Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Gavin Skelly ever played for Northwestern came against Wisconsin.

Back in January 2015, they got their first taste of humiliation, hosting the then-No. 4 Badgers — a Final Four-bound team that featured four future NBA players  — and walking out of Welsh-Ryan Arena holding an 81-58 loss.

Thursday night, McIntosh, Lindsey and Skelly will play their final home game — though McIntosh may very well miss it, as he’s sat out the past two games with a shoulder injury — matching up with a very different Wisconsin team, in a very different location, with a very different vibe to the season.

“You’ve got to dig down and come together and close it out,” coach Chris Collins said after Monday’s loss to Maryland. “And that’s just kind of been the story of a lot of our season. We haven’t been able to win these games, and it’s obviously frustrating.”

McIntosh, Lindsey and Skelly were part of Collins’ first true recruiting class, which at the time was the best in program history. Along with now-junior Vic Law and former player Johnnie Vassar, the young squad wasn’t expected to do much and scrapped to a less-than-noteworthy 15-17 record, finishing 6-12 in conference play. At one point, NU lost 10 straight games, beginning with that blowout at the hands of the highly ranked Badgers.

This year’s Wildcats (15-14, 6-10 Big Ten) could easily finish with the exact same record. NU rode into the season saddled with a No. 19 ranking and expectations to return to the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the Cats have been torched by quality opponents, squeaked out wins over bad teams and most recently collapsed down the stretch in three straight games.

“When things kind of get in tough times, we haven’t really rallied together and kind of worked ourselves out of those situations for a lot off the year,” Collins said. “A lot of times that’s the fine line (between) winning and losing, and these last three games are very indicative of that.”

As the most decorated senior class in school history, many would argue this trio deserves a rousing senior day, no matter the state of the team. But that seems like an increasingly unlikely possibility given the venue for the send-off: Allstate Arena.

The cavernous Rosemont stadium has served as the temporary home of the team this season due to construction on Welsh-Ryan Arena, and the effects have been noticeable. The two highest-attended games in school history have come this season, against Michigan State and Illinois. Both of those games were largely populated by opposing fans.

“Part of changing the culture of a program is done by the coaches, the players and the fanbase,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the Spartans’ historic comeback Saturday. “This team deserves to have sell-outs of their own. (The Michigan State crowd) helped us today, there’s no question about it.”

Wisconsin (13-16, 6-10) has fallen even further from its own highs. Just three years after appearing in the second of back-to-back Final Fours, the Badgers have already lost the program’s most games since the 1997-98 season. That’s also the last time the Badgers missed the NCAA Tournament.

Forward Ethan Happ is still dominant, averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game. But the rest of the team isn’t quite as good. Wisconsin’s post-up-centric offense hasn’t functioned as well when Happ is kicking the ball out to a supporting cast that has combined to shoot 33 percent from 3-point range in conference play. A solid percentage of those looks are wide open, too, thanks to all the double-teams Happ draws down low.

This year’s Badgers squad isn’t anything like the one that ran NU off the floor in 2015, and the Cats will justifiably be betting line favorites as the home team.

But there are no guarantees. After all, NU has struggled all year to live up to expectations.

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