WASHINGTON — Vic Law has said it all year long. He wants this to be a different Northwestern team.
Well, Vic, congratulations. This is about as different as a Northwestern basketball team gets.
The program that's never reached the NCAA tournament before is suddenly a stone-cold lock after advancing to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals with a gargantuan win over Maryland on Friday night in D.C.
Of course, there wasn't much doubt entering this week's conference tournament that the Wildcats would be dancing for the first time ever. But a mauling of Rutgers and slugfest of a win over Maryland has now etched Northwestern's name in stone on every single bracket projection in the land.
The Cats' trip to the nation's capital could've gone much differently, though. It could be over.
The Terps had a double-digit lead after scoring the first eight points of the second half, and a rowdy pro-Maryland crowd was going absolutely bonkers with every play. Head coach Chris Collins presented his team with a challenge: Win or go home. His team's answer? Win.
"We had to win tonight with toughness," Collins said after the game. "This was a difficult game. We played last night. They were fresh. You're playing basically in their home gym, in a great environment. They got a lot of energy behind them.
"We got down 10. I thought we were a little bit tired. I really challenged those guys about 16 minutes to go: 'Do you guys just want to go home or do you want to try to win this game?' They got a little bit fired up. They got a little bit angry. They said, 'We're here to win.' They believe it. That's what's cool. They not only say it, I feel they believe not only that they should be playing on this stage, but they should win on this stage. That just doesn't happen overnight. It happens with a process through time and ups and downs."
And so while the Big Dance is still a week away and the lights could get even brighter not just a week from now but also in the coming days, when Northwestern could conceivably be playing for a conference-tournament championship, the Cats have done what they set out to do when Collins took over as head coach. They've arrived.
Collins has batted away the NCAA tournament question throughout his tenure, not saying it's his ultimate goal to make the field of 68 but rather to make Northwestern a winning program.
Well, the Cats have already secured a program-record amount of wins, bringing the total to 23 on the season with Friday's victory. They've reached the Big Ten Tournament semis, something the program's never seen. The first tournament berth will come on Selection Sunday, the biggest never-been-done-before moment there is for this program.
And what if Northwestern is watching Selection Sunday from the Verizon Center with a Big Ten Tournament trophy in tow?
It doesn't get much more different than that.
"It feels great, and that's something we talk about every day, just being different," Bryant McIntosh said. "Don't get caught up in the failures of the past 78 years and just go out and be us, be a great team and continue to believe that we're a great team."
"We want to win a Big Ten title," Law said. "We want to be different from every other Northwestern team. We want to show that Northwestern is now a basketball school and we're a good team."
Consider it shown. Against a team that's lived in the top 25 for much of this season, Northwestern rattled off a first-half run of 20-4 and a second-half run of 20-2. Maryland had its own charges in the game, but the Cats handled those. They played good defense. They got production from Law and Scottie Lindsey. They did everything they needed to do to win in March.
And so as March continues to get madder and madder, Northwestern continues to show that Collins' four years of program building have paid off in a major way.
"It's just been an honor coaching this group, really has," Collins said. "To have all these guys believe in what we were trying to do from Day 1, when we really didn't have much to believe in but a dream and a vision. To see them work for these things, that's what makes it fun for me, is just thinking back of all the times I saw them in the gym. I saw them coming in at night, getting together, talking about the game, how we could be better, that bad taste in their mouths when we would have tough defeats, come up a little bit short.
"For me to watch these guys grow the way they have, be a leader for them, it's been an incredible year to coach these guys so far this season."
Did you catch the key words there? "So far." These Cats aren't done yet.