EVANSTON — There was no sense of dread emanating from Chris Collins following Northwestern's loss to Illinois on Tuesday night.
But the head coach on the brink of getting the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament for the first time ever voiced his team's disappointment.
"Got a full month of the season left. Like I told the guys, it's a long year. A lot of ebbs and flows, ups and downs," Collins said. "Tonight wasn't a great night, a lot of disappointed faces in the locker room. But we've got to just keep playing, keep plugging along. Get ready for the next one."
This is exactly what Collins didn't want to happen.
Following last week's loss at Purdue — an excusable defeat even if it was a lopsided one — Collins said his team needed to "stop the bleeding." It's not something you typically worry about after one loss, especially one that was immediately preceded by a six-game winning streak. But Collins has been here before. In his first three seasons, losing streaks of seven and 10 plus a stretch featuring eight losses in 10 games have torpedoed his team during conference play.
Out to a 7-3 start to league play this season and firmly established as one of the top four teams in the Big Ten, one of those stretches didn't seem possible. Then came Tuesday's loss to Illinois, one of the Big Ten's basement-dwellers, and the nervous eyes might have started darting around Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Sure, Northwestern was again without leading scorer Scottie Lindsey, something that obviously caused a huge amount of problems considering the team shot just 33.9 percent from the field.
As Collins said just one day prior, he knows how quickly momentum can change in the Big Ten. The task was not allowing one loss to become two. Now it's not allowing two losses to become three or four, something that's a much bigger challenge considering the next two opponents are Wisconsin and Maryland, two of the top three teams in the league.
"I think the guys were good in the locker room. We've got a good bunch in the locker room," Collins said. "They're down, obviously. They put a lot into this game and wanted to win and get back on that winning track. It didn't happen. They were saying the right things. We've got to keep playing.
"In this league it's crazy. We can look at games all the time. Everyone is good, so if you don't play well, you could lose to anyone. There's a million examples of that already this year. We feel we can compete."
After Tuesday's loss, Collins expressed the need for his team to play smarter. He lamented the 14 turnovers — and specifically the five of them over the final three minutes — and possessions that ended in less-than-ideal shots.
From watching the Cats the past two outings, though, it seems what they need even more is to get Lindsey back. Collins talked about Lindsey's absence putting more pressure on Bryant McIntosh, who while scoring a combined 43 points against Purdue and Illinois also missed a combined 22 shots in those games. McIntosh also turned the ball over six times. Vic Law bounced back well enough after going 0-for-7 with one point against Purdue, but he was an inefficient 5-for-14 against Illinois.
"You take 16 points out of the lineup, there's going to be more on those guys," Collins said. "The whole game plan (for the opposing team) is to try to stop two guys without Scottie."
It might sound a little obvious that Northwestern could use its leading scorer back in the lineup. After shooting a combined 39.8 percent against the Boilers and Illini, it doesn't matter how obvious it sounds. It's critical.
There's just one problem: "I don't know how long Scottie's going to be out."
And so the mental challenges begin. Collins has refused to count his chickens before they hatch, refused to accept this is the year Northwestern finally gets an invite to the Big Dance because he's a veteran of season-altering losing streaks during his time in Evanston. Now more than ever, the Cats need to avoid another one of those. Or the season of dreams could suddenly turn into a nightmare.