EVANSTON, Ill. — Most people come home from Mexico with a suntan and a T-shirt. The Northwestern men’s basketball team brought back confidence, reassured the talent and cohesion the Wildcats saw during the off-season could translate into something good on the court.
Three months after that Cancun Challenge, the rest of the country is seeing the same thing.
After five consecutive losing seasons that put coach Chris Collins’ job in jeopardy, Northwestern has been one of this season’s biggest surprises. The Wildcats followed their upset of then-No. 1 Purdue last Sunday with a victory over 15th-ranked Indiana on Wednesday, giving them four wins over Top-20 teams. They’re currently second in the Big Ten and, at 19-7, are in good position to make the NCAA men’s tournament for just the second time in school history.
“It’s more joy than relief,” Collins said Friday. “I’ve always been someone that wants our guys to feel the happiness and joy when things go well. So I wouldn’t say really relief but joy and pride because of what these older guys, especially, have been through.”
Collins had success quickly after arriving at Northwestern in 2013. In his third season, the Wildcats matched the school record of 20 wins. The following year brought that trip to the NCAA tournament and a first-round win. With four starters from that team returning for the 2017-18 season, Northwestern seemed poised for a stretch of sustained success.
It didn’t happen. Northwestern finished two games below .500 that year and, two years later, failed even to reach double digits in wins.
“I think we just assumed that we were going to be that team again,” Collins said. “It doesn’t take much. We lost a little bit of that competitive edge, we lost a little bit of that hunger, that chemistry that made us good. Because of that, we took a step back.
“I don’t think I did a good enough job leading us through that,” he added. “Going to the tournament for the first time, winning a game, for our program that was like going to the Final Four or winning a national championship, and I don’t think we moved on from that.”
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There also were extenuating circumstances. Northwestern played its home games at Allstate Arena while Welsh-Ryan Arena was renovated during the 2017-18 season, and saying the place lacks atmosphere is putting it nicely. It’s outdated, spartan and near-impossible for students to get there, and it’s easy to see why DePaul finally abandoned it.
Then came COVID. And rebuilds. While Northwestern was just a game below .500 last year, there was a new athletic director, and Derrick Gragg made it clear Collins needed to make progress.
He didn’t need to spell out what would happen if Collins didn’t.
“We (didn’t) look at that,” senior forward Robbie Beran said. “Obviously that’s out of our control. We just tried to focus on the game in front of us, try to get better and win games. You win, it kind of solves a lot of the stuff.”
Having lost its best player from last season — Pete Nance went to North Carolina as a graduate transfer — Northwestern was picked to finish 13th in the 14-team Big Ten. But Collins believed there was more to his team than outsiders were seeing.
He was pleased with the development of guards Boo Buie, Chase Audige and Ty Berry. In the off-season, the Wildcats recommitted to the fundamentals, defense in particular.
When Northwestern held then-No. 13 Auburn to 43 points in a 1-point “rock fight” in Cancun, Collins and the Wildcats knew they were going to be fine. Though they promptly got thumped by Pittsburgh upon their return, they rebounded with a convincing win at Michigan State, then No. 20, in East Lansing, Michigan.
“I was like, man, our guys, there’s something there. There’s a fight to us. There’s a resilience and we’ve got a chance to be pretty good,” Collins said.
Buie and Audige are both averaging 15 points or better, and it was Buie’s bucket that clinched the win over Indiana. On the other end, Northwestern is allowing 61.9 points per game, 20th in the country.
The biggest key, however, has been avoiding the strings of losses that kill a season. Lose one or two in a row, OK, you can recover from that. Lose five or six, and somebody better go chase the wheels because they have most definitely come off.
Northwestern has lost consecutive games three times this season but has not lost three in a row.
In another sign of their mental toughness, the Wildcats have gone 6-2 on the road, including wins in Columbus (Ohio), Madison (Wisconsin) and Bloomington (Indiana) as well as East Lansing. And with that victory over Indiana, they showed they can handle the pressure that comes with their new spotlight.
“I don’t think we change our philosophy at all,” Beran said. “We continue to stay on our mission, worrying about ourselves and trying to come out every single day and compete and be the hardest-playing team in the country.”
A team that, to everyone’s surprise but their own, could be playing deep into March.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.