So what's a team to do when these flaws (namely, poor interior defense, inconsistent shooting and a lack of speed) put it at risk of losing to a team like IUPUI? It fights tooth and nail with everything it has, and that's how Northwestern came away with a 63-61 win Friday night.
"There's not going to be an easy game on our schedule," said head coach Chris Collins after the game. "We can be good, but we've got to be really sharp, we've got to be fresh, we've got to play well, we've got to shoot well.
"Our margin for error is very slim, and I'm ok with that," he continued.
And while Northwestern can take comfort in an easier non-conference slate until it gets to Las Vegas, that margin is going get even slimmer when the Big Ten schedule kicks off.
That's not to say Northwestern's success is contingent on buying into platitudes. This team is talented enough to win a few games and finish off what could have been a doomed season on a bright step toward a brighter future. Victories will often be piecemeal and will rarely be pretty, and Saturday's game is emblematic of that.
The win over IUPUI saw Drew Crawford and Jershon Cobb score zero and two points respectively in the first half. It saw Sanjay Lumpkin post eight points and five rebounds in the first 20 minutes, and then saw him miss most of the second half after committing three fouls in 20 seconds. It saw Alex Olah get dominated under the rim by Mitch Patton and Dave Sobolewski shoot two-for-eleven from the field.
But Crawford rallied for 12 points in the second half, assistant coach Pat Baldwin called for a switch to a 2-3 zone that dramatically improved the Northwestern defense, Sobolewski went five-for-five from the foul line and Cobb put in a game-winning floater with just less than three seconds to play.
For Collins, the success comes down to hard work and preparation, which can easily be dismissed or taken for granted. Quite honestly, if the team was more talented, the emphasis might not be as strong.
Northwestern can't afford to see it that way, though. Hard work isn't something to be celebrated for the Wildcats, but rather expected. That doesn't make it any less commendable, but it makes it that much more essential.
"We wouldn't have won that game if didn't play hard. We wouldn't have won that game if we didn't fight and I'm proud of the way our guys dug down and got it done," Collins said. "There's a lot of fight in our locker room, and I can promise you we'll never quit, we'll never give up ‘till the final buzzer."
If you can't rely on a close win from Northwestern, at least you can rely on a good fight. For now, that might just be enough to make the growing pains worthwhile.
Northwestern returns to action against Gardner-Webb on Monday night.