By Yifan Wu
Between a Hail Mary buzzer-beater to beat Michigan and a nationally televised nail-biter loss Sunday to Purdue, the first week of March has provided plenty of drama for the Northwestern Wildcats. Their plan for the sequel? Pack confidence and toughness accumulated from the regular season and bring it to the Big Ten Tournament.
The perennial underdog Wildcats are heading to Verizon Center in Washington as a No.6 seed, tied for their highest seeding in program history. They have a first-round bye, as they will meet the winner of the Rutgers-Ohio State game.
While coach Chris Collins says he was proud of his team’s play in the 69-65 loss to Big Ten regular-season champion Purdue, he said every team gets a fresh start in tournament play. The Wildcats swept Rutgers and the win over the Buckeyes was their first in Columbus in 40 years.
“You can’t look ahead in this conference; you take the game in front of you,” Collins says. “But you know, both are tough-minded teams. They are both physical teams that will present us challenges on Thursday night.”
The Wildcats closed out the season in a packed Welsh-Ryan Arena at 10-8 in conference play. It was their first winning record in Big Ten since 1968, six years before Collins was born.
In preparation for the tournament and a possible historic run in March Madness, Collins cut the practices short but kept the same level of intensity to “keep the players’ legs fresh but their minds sharp.”
Junior guard Bryant McIntosh danced around the topic of Selection Sunday. “We are really only thinking about what is ahead of us right now, and whatever happens at the end of this week happens,” he said.
It’s been a long road for the school career assist leader who came to Northwestern after leading Greensburg Community High School to an Indiana state championship. A starter since his freshman year, McIntosh was determined to bring the same mentality to the locker room in Evanston.
“It was difficult to some of us that are accustomed to winning. So, that was a rough time,” McIntosh said. “It is almost a process, it makes you appreciate what we have done so far.”
Collins also came from a championship caliber program before Northwestern – he was an assistant coach at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski for 13 seasons. When Northwestern announced the hiring of Collins in March, 2013, his mandate, despite the team’s history, was to get Northwestern to the NCAA tournament.
“I believed when I took over the program,” Collins said “Obviously being the sixth seed in the Big Ten Tournament is a great spot, but I believe that we can accomplish more. And it is not just me, all of our players believed that we could turn this program around and be successful.”