Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament drought will not be ending this season. It’s not as if inclusion in this March’s field of 68 was ever an expectation for this group of Wildcats (because it wasn’t), but Thursday night’s loss to Ohio State dropped Chicago’s Big Ten team to what will almost certainly be an insurmountable 1-5 in conference play (10-9 overall). D’Angelo Russell (33 points, seven rebounds, six assists) may have been superior to any player the ‘Cats have faced this season (head coach Chris Collins admitted as much afterwards), but the defeat was just another in a string of excruciatingly close Northwestern losses. In overtime at Michigan State. By five to intrastate rival Illinois. A two-point defeat at Michigan. And then Thursday night, where Ohio State needed every point of its best player’s career game to eke out a two-point victory. The Wildcats haven’t gotten over the hump yet, but they have been consistently close. Right now, that seems to be good enough for Collins.
You wouldn’t expect the head coach of a team that has won just one of its first six conference games to be especially optimistic after a loss, but Collins exuded confidence. In the postgame presser he repeatedly talked about how hard his guys had played, even saying, “It was so tough that they are not getting the results they deserve.” It was the opposite of a woeful mentality; this was a coach who believes in his players and everything they put on the floor last night. In his mind, they wholeheartedly deserved to win, and maybe after another season of close calls, he feels that they will turn the corner. Even while complaining about a controversial (and incorrectly called) blocking foul in the final minutes, Collins aired his postgame grievances with a knowing, almost-cocky smile across his face. He wanted the win for his guys (if you need it, here’s proof, via his in-game reaction to that missed call), but that steady confidence from trusting the system he’s developing belied contentment with the final result. Close was okay on this night; his team had played well enough to win.