How would Northwestern respond?
Coming off a home loss to Creighton, the Wildcats had to bounce back against a La Salle team out to a 3-0 start.
From the opening tip, Chris Collins's team rolled past the Explorers, 82-74, in a game that wasn’t really that close. Northwestern will face Texas Tech in the championship game of the Hall of Fame Tip Off on Sunday.
A few years ago, Northwestern wouldn’t have been expected to respond. The Wildcats losing by four at home to a team that received a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament six months earlier? No big deal.
That all has changed.
Last season, the story for Northwestern was the Wildcats’ quest to reach their first NCAA tournament.
Now that they’ve been there, this is suddenly the first team in program history to play with hype and expectations.
The narrative has flipped. No longer is Northwestern the feel-good story in college basketball, the team that everyone is talking about making history. The Wildcats are now a target. They were ranked in the preseason top 25, picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten, projected to make the NCAA tournament, with two players selected to the preseason All-Big Ten Team.
They’re now supposed to beat Creighton at home, they’re supposed to beat La Salle on a neutral court, and they’re supposed to beat Texas Tech (or at least be in a one-possession game late).
It’s something Northwestern isn’t used to, but it will have to adjust.
Fortunately, the Wildcats have the personnel to avoid a drop-off in performance, and the experience to avoid a drop-off in motivation. Point guard Bryant McIntosh is one of the best players in the Big Ten, and he went for 21 points and seven assists on Saturday. Vic Law is an elite defender, and he put up 30 points against Creighton. Scottie Lindsey bounced back from struggles on Wednesday to score 20 against La Salle. All three are seniors or juniors.
Collins and the Wildcats also got a big boost on Saturday when forward Aaron Falzon made his season debut. Falzon, a 6-foot-8 forward, missed most of last season with a knee injury and then didn’t play in the first three games this season after a hip problem. He suited up on Saturday, though, and made an immediate impact, hitting three 3-pointers and scoring 11 points.
The tests won’t slow down for Northwestern, though. Because the Big Ten tournament is being held a week earlier, the league is opening up conference play in two weeks -- and Northwestern will host Illinois before traveling to Purdue two days later. The Wildcats also face Georgia Tech and Oklahoma on the road before the New Year.
Another wrinkle is Northwestern won’t be playing at Welsh-Ryan Arena this season while it’s being renovated. The Wildcats went 14-4 on their home court last season, but will play at Allstate Arena this season.
On the plus side, Northwestern knows what it’s like to be under the microscope. It was a different type of pressure, but it was pressure nonetheless. Last season, the Wildcats had the weight of the program’s history on their shoulders. They were trying to make history, and every college basketball fan in the country was watching. Their finishing stretch -- six losses in their final nine regular-season games -- probably brought more stress than anything that will happen this season.
Now that they’ve done it, though, they’re expected to do it again.
Saturday’s response after Wednesday’s loss was a good start.