Freshmen finally moving forward

In their final regular season game as Wildcats, Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio combined to shoot just 7-for-19 from the field. It was three freshmen, on Michigan State' s senior night, that kept Northwestern playing down to the wire. Those same three freshmen are a reason to believe looking forward.

Fielding a pass from Mike Turner along the left sideline, freshman guard Tre Demps catapulted a deep three as the first half came to a close. Nothing but net.

The play looked surprisingly routine as Demps took it all in stride, headed toward the locker room with his Wildcats down just seven in hostile territory. On senior night, it was a freshman that showed resounding maturity against one of the top teams in the country.

Sunday's 71-61 loss to No. 10 Michigan State wasn't all that different from other losses Northwestern has endured this season. Like tough blows against Indiana and Ohio State, the Wildcats stumbled through the game's first 10 minutes before running toe-to-toe with a top-tier team. Like Indiana and Ohio State, the Wildcats pulled even just around the five minute mark. And like Indiana and Ohio State, the perimeter magic eventually died out and the defense eventually toppled down the stretch, leaving Northwestern with nothing to do but foul as time ran out.

But take a quick run down the stat sheet, and it's tough to deny that something decidedly more positive went down at the Breslin Center Sunday.

16 points from Kale Abrahamson. 4-of-6 shooting from Alex Olah. A team-high 12 shots from Demps. On Michigan State's senior night, it was three freshman that took charge.

With Reggie Hearn shooting less than 30 percent from the field and Alex Marcotullio held scoreless for the game's first 16 minutes, Northwestern's two seniors were not the ones leading a surprising upset effort. Instead, it was Abrahamson's perimeter game, Olah's interior smoothness and Demps' baseline-to-baseline aggressiveness that kept things close with Keith Appling and the Spartans.

It's an encouraging sign for a program that had to deal with another injury every week; a subtle reminder amid a frenzied Breslin crowd that Northwestern basketball is far from dead.

Abrahamson spent all season drawing criticism for forcing his shot on the outside; Sunday, he lead the Wildcats in scoring over an efficient 34 minutes, taking only five threes. Olah struggled all year with sizing up in the paint; Sunday, he grabbed a key late-game offensive rebound and touted impressive basketball smarts creating lay-ins off cuts and screens. Demps' 2012-13 was marred by a lack of consistency on both ends of the floor; Sunday, he tallied a scorching 11 points in just 21 minutes.

With Big Ten Tournament seeding all locked in and both teams' NCAA Tourney destinies set, Sunday's game was far from memorable, save for senior forward Derrick Nix kissing the Breslin floor goodbye as time expired. But as the ‘Cats gear up for a huge bounce-back season next fall, the freshmen's Sunday outings mean a whole lot.

Yes, Drew Crawford will be back for 2013-14. So will Jershon Cobb. But if Abrahamson, Olah and Demps continue to take strides started in East Lansing, next season's difference makers are already on the active roster.

With reprise performances from three rising sophomores, could the Wildcats turn these close losses to Indiana, Ohio State and MSU into signature wins? It's anyone's guess right now. But a more efficient Abrahamson spreads the floor for Crawford and Co., while a more confident Olah and a fully adjusted Demps help shoulder the defensive load for Cobb. If all three play to Sunday's potential, there's no reason not to buy into the often-hackneyed "there's always next year" mantra.

Hearn and Marcotullio head out after this weekend. But, by the looks of it, three new starters are coming around right on time.

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