Anyone who has played sports (or FIFA) competitively knows the feeling of losing a close game you know your team should have won. When that happens twice in a row, it sometimes feels like the world is going to end. But to do it in five straight games, capped off by a one-point loss to the 13th-ranked team in the nation in what was perhaps the worst defeat in the program's recent history? It's hard to imagine how anyone on the Northwestern men's basketball team feels after experiencing that.
There’s a silver lining here: I’d bet that this losing stretch will motivate Northwestern in a way no inspirational speech or multi-million dollar contract ever could. I know because, albeit in a completely different sense, I’ve been there before.
My high school baseball team lost in back-to-back semifinal games my sophomore and junior years, the second of which was a 1-0 defeat after our starting pitcher allowed a single hit all game. When you put in hours and hours of work in the gym, on the court, in the weight room, on the field, in the swimming pool – whatever – there's no definable feeling that can capture the sensation of losing a game on a single shot, pitch or kickoff return.
You don’t know how to feel. It’s an odd mix of frustration, anger and sadness, something that can manifest itself into worse emotions – hopelessness – that affect the athlete afterward. In the wake of that second loss, I’d argue that our pitcher didn't feel all that differently than Bryant McIntosh felt after missing the game-tying layup against Michigan on Jan. 17, or JerShon Cobb when he realized he probably should have attacked the glass a little more aggressively after Melo Trimble’s missed three-pointer Sunday night.
Collectively, my team spent the next year preparing for that same moment – fielding extra grounders, lifting weights and, most importantly, no longer taking anything for granted. I'd be lying if I said a large chunk of my motivation didn't come from that unforgettably awful feeling after the second semifinal loss. I never wanted to experience that again. So when we found ourselves with a 2-0 deficit in the third semifinal game my senior year, I wasn't worried. We scored 21 runs in the next 13 innings (we won that game 14-4 and won the championship 7-0) because we were tired of not seeing our hard work pay off the way we expected it to. I can tell you I've never wanted to win anything as badly as I wanted to win the championship my senior year.
Will anything like that happen to Northwestern? Probably not, nor is it as easy as saying “work harder because you feel shitty, and all your problems will be solved.” But the parallels still apply: It’s fuel to the fire because Chris Collins and his team want to win now. The biggest victory from all these losses is that the narrow defeats are Northwestern’s biggest problem. It’s not the offensive efficiency (which is by no means stellar but also a huge step forward from last year), nor are the ‘Cats struggling defensively. Bryant McIntosh is exceeding everyone’s expectations; Alex Olah is finally playing like he’s seven feet tall; Sanjay Lumpkin would be the sixth-most efficient shooter in the Big Ten if he qualified; Nate Taphorn is shooting three-pointers like Steph Curry; Scottie Lindsey and Gavin Skelly look promising during limited playing time. Most (but not all) of the factors that matter are the ones trending in the right direction.
Northwestern's inability to close is perhaps the best problem the team could have, especially for a developing roster that's clearly set up for greater success in the next couple years. It's not just about learning from mistakes – it's taking the feeling that comes from those mistakes and turning it into something that can drive players when they have another chance. The best teams are the ones that harness those feelings and channel them into palpable results. I've never played basketball competitively outside of two rather bleak seasons in an elementary school YMCA league, but I still know that just like almost every other sport, basketball is very much a mental game. Turning failure into a catalyst for success isn’t far-fetched.
It's difficult to think this way in the present moment, when everyone wants to see results – and nobody is claiming Northwestern doesn't want to win this year.
But progress is evident, something these 50/50 losses shouldn’t take away from. The team looks different on offense; there's a whole lot less of the team's patented "pass the ball around the arc and jack up a contested three-pointer" plays we became so well acquainted with last season. Ball movement has suddenly become a real thing for this team, even if they have fallen flat on the offensive end at times – something we had to realistically expect anyway. The defense hasn't been spectacular either, but opponents are still only scoring 62.7 points per game against Northwestern, good for sixth in the Big Ten. Elite teams have struggled offensively against the ‘Cats, both at home and on the road.
If Ohio State's DeAngelo Russell hits five threes instead of six, if Trimble’s three-pointer glances away to a different spot on the floor, if McIntosh finishes his layup – maybe Northwestern is 12-8. But Collins' squad has the constructive experience of the sickening feeling that comes with repeatedly losing winnable games.
Nobody wants that to happen, but right now, it’s not so bad. Imagine if you went to Florida A&M.