This is a fluke no longer.
Northwestern's stretch of good play has always been described as that: a stretch. Meaning, everyone expected it to end at some point. But isn't it time to remove that qualifier from the Wildcats' season? Let's face facts: Northwestern is just plain good.
For the fifth time in seven games, Chris Collins' crew walked away with a win. For the third consecutive game away from Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Cats walked away with a win. And for the fifth time in Big Ten play, Northwestern walked away with a win.
"Obviously, it is a great win for our team and our program," Collins said postgame.
This latest "great win for the program" was a 55-54 victory at Minnesota, a team that's done its own fair share of surprising this season. The Gophers had more rebounds, shot better from the field, had more steals and assists, had fewer turnovers. But somehow it was the Cats on the winning end. Again.
And again it has to be chalked up to that Northwestern defense, which held Minnesota to its lowest offensive output of the season. Things got messy down the stretch, with the teams combining for just 17 points in the game's final eight minutes. The Cats got 43 of their 55 points from three players: Drew Crawford, Tre Demps and JerShon Cobb. In other words, it was just the kind of game Northwestern likes and the kind it's made a habit of playing since turning its season around.
But this time around, the noteworthiness comes from the big picture.
First, this was Northwestern's fifth conference win, a task accomplished in Evanston only 10 times prior — in an full conference season, no less — since 1984. The win in the Twin Cities marked three straight road wins in the Big Ten for the Wildcats — at Indiana, Wisconsin and MInnesota — the first time that's happened since 1960. And with a 5-5 conference record, believe it or not, Northwestern is the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, trailing just Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa.
It's been long questioned since the Wildcats' turnaround began just how long Collins and Co. could keep this up. But if they've showed anything, it's that they're more than capable of keeping this up. And, though a 12-11 record doesn't scream NCAA tournament team on Feb. 2, it certainly isn't out of the question to posit that Northwestern is heading toward its best season in quite some time.
"When I came in, I just wanted a fresh start for everyone," Collins said. "That does not mean it was all bad. There was a lot of good. There were good players in the program. The coach I replaced was the most successful coach in the history of the program and was a really good coach. Our approach has been to start fresh. It has not been easy. We took our lumps in the non-conference. We tried to figure out who we were. After the third league game, our guys came together and said they wanted to make something of this season. We rallied around each other and made a commitment to defense.
"In the heat of the battle, it is hard to think long term about what these wins means. As someone who grew up in Chicago, I know that it is not easy to win in this building. I know it is not easy to win at Assembly Hall, and I know it is not easy to win at the Kohl Center. For this team to be able to do that, it shows a lot about the group of guys I have."