It's amazing to even think Chris Collins and his staff rallied the team after brutal losses to Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa early in January. We thought this looked like "starting from scratch," with few usable pieces, and perhaps a longer than ideal timeframe from success.
Especially with Andre Hollins' return, Northwestern is likely to lose to Minnesota tomorrow. Fans will have to gain perspective, quickly, and step back. Everything from this season is pointing to a promising next one. It both includes and goes well beyond Collins' first strong recruiting class.
Players back next year:
Jershon Cobb (current RS-Jr.): Viable second scoring option, strong perimeter defender, good rebounder from the guard position.
Alex Olah (So.): Wildly improved in sophomore season, advanced post game, comfortable playing heavy minutes in frontcourt.
Sanjay Lumpkin (RS-Fr.): Horrible offensively, but that can get better. Versatile defender usually capable of guarding opponent's most athletic player.
Tre Demps (RS-So.): Dynamite bench scorer, improved defender, clutch.
What changed? All of the four above developments. In recent games, Northwestern has been winning, and that's the result of players progressing quicker than we ever expected. Cobb was considered unproven; Demps was the most criticized player on Northwestern because of his tendency to "chuck." The relevance of this season—which lasted for longer than it should have—might end with tomorrow. But the developments have no way of disappearing. Even in light of recent struggles, Northwestern is the definition of a team one or two pieces away from the postseason.
As much as we, and I, (rightly) obsess over future recruits and their potential, it is an essential addition to have key players on the current roster. Although Drew Crawford leaves Evanston as one of the program's top-15 players in history, at least, NU will work for the rest of the season to continue building players.
We have a fairly clear idea of the strengths that are coming in. The most known commodity is Greensburg (Ind.) point guard Bryant McIntosh. Want a lack of pressure? Try the fact that he's technically replacing no one. Cobb will slide over to the two-guard position and start there, with McIntosh an essential backcourt improvement.
There are immediate role players, with Vic Law (maybe overhyped, sorry) and Gavin Skelly as two of the guys who enter to immediate needs. Skelly is the sleeper, with almost the same high school bio and skillset as current Iowa standout Aaron White. They're eerily similar.
But most important is that next year's hopes aren't anymore solely riding on a highly touted incoming class. They supplement some existing strengths. Aside from McIntosh, Collins can ease them in and foster development before anything.
Several key returning pieces have already experienced how to win in the Big Ten—and not just from the bench.
Success will prove fleeting in 2013. It's coming to an end. But everything we've seen to this point suggests a long-term gain. And hell, let's admit it: The future is bright.