The Wildcats are still a bad basketball team, one that should be drubbed by Michigan State Wednesday and many more times after that. But in time, the numbers fade and the season is framed by perspective, and what we're left with is the first signature moment of the most hyped era in program history. A win over Eastern Illinois and half-respectable outings in Vegas don't ring in the potential of Chris Collins the way Sunday's win did, and after two months of slow progression, some tangible success is welcomed with Alex Olah-sized arms.
"Thinking of my first Big Ten win, I never thought my team would only have 49 points," Collins said after Sunday's game. "I'm just so proud of how hard our guys played."
Understandable. Tre Demps had the game of his life, draining three momentum-swinging treys and grabbing eight rebounds. Olah knocked in an efficient nine points and swung between post and perimeter defense with aplomb. Jershon Cobb made five of his seven shots. But a team once drained of pride has to be most proud of its coach, who instilled a trove of late-game adjustments and a level of confidence that was seldom seen under Bill Carmody.
Collins prepared his team for Illinois' pick-and-roll-heavy offense, and then had his defense rotating effectively to combat predictable screens. The team remained mentally tough against a ranked opponent, even when noise began pouring in from the contingent of Illini fans. The clutch foul shots were made.
But best of all, when the Cats turned the ball over twice in the face of Illini presses — when a typical Northwestern loss looked to be a lock — the team stayed sound and actually pulled out the win. The last time NU beat a Big Ten opponent by six or fewer? March 3, 2012 in Iowa.
"We were well-prepared for this game," said Sanjay Lumpkin. "It felt awesome to break through. We'll remember this feeling. We just have to keep building from here."
"It was a feeling like no other," Demps added.
Well-prepared and well-fought. That's refreshing, even in a season scrapped for rebuilding before the first game tipped off.
The comedown will be delivered Wednesday, when the fourth-ranked Spartans will all but surely shoot better than 28 percent from the field and post a rebound differential worlds better than plus-four. Still, the signs of life Northwestern flashed Sunday won't die any time soon. Demps could use a huge outing to propel a well-rounded finish to the season; Olah could use any semblance of that defensive confidence to make the jump we've been waiting for. Best of all, Collins' first win is in the books, and with a handful of recruits in attendance, the first step toward Northwestern finding identity and realizing expectation was taken.
"I kept saying in the timeout: We can be tired tomorrow, but we can't be tired tonight," Collins said. "We have to try to build from it. It's a long year and a tough league. You can't get down about losing games, and you can't celebrate too long about winning games."
See the soon-to-be iconic photo of Collins and the team letting loose in the locker room, and you know that celebration will last a while.