If this is to be the year Northwestern finally reaches the NCAA tournament, you can look back on Saturday night's win over Dayton and the sheer fact that it wasn't a loss.
The Wildcats' nearly collapsed in epic fashion, dominating for 30 minutes before watching a 23-point halftime advantage evaporate practically down to nothing while somehow holding off the visiting Flyers for a 67-64 victory at the United Center.
Northwestern made just one basket over the game's final 10 minutes. The Cats made six total shots in the second half and missed a worrisome nine free throws on the night.
But a win is a win, as they say, and for a program that historically hasn't seen a lot of those, this is a victory the Cats were happy to claim.
"We knew they were going to make their push at the end. In games like this last year, I think we weren't as mentally tough, and sometimes we might have turned the ball over," Vic Law said after the game. "Or even in games earlier this season, we had to take our lumps down the stretch in games, the Notre Dame game. I think we learned from our mistakes, and we're becoming a lot more mature."
"Showing the growth of this team and this program, in years past, this was a game that maybe we would have given up that lead in the second half, and we maybe wouldn't have won that game, wouldn't have made those tough plays," Sanjay Lumpkin said. "Lot of guys stepped up and made big free throws down the stretch. It was great to see that growth, as Vic just said. And it was mature of us."
While the final 20 minutes Saturday didn't inspire much confidence in outside observers, maybe this is a sign of growth, and certainly the program seems to be taking the steps head coach Chris Collins is always talking about.
For the first time in a long time, the Cats have a legitimate tournament resume as they exit the non-conference portion of their schedule. Northwestern sits at 9-2 through 11 games with wins over name programs Texas, Wake Forest and Dayton. Its two losses very easily could've been wins, but they still don't look bad: narrow defeats by a combined six points against currently ranked Notre Dame and Butler teams. A decent showing during Big Ten play would figure to put the Cats in the discussion for a spot in the 68-team field. A slightly better-than-expected showing with a marquee win or two — not impossible considering Northwestern has two wins apiece over Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin during Collins' tenure — could make things real interesting.
"I just believe we're a team that's good," Collins said after Saturday's game. "Whether we are or not, that's up to you to determine. We come into games like this believing we're going to win. And that's, to me, the steps we've taken. I think in the past we've had good attitudes and we've come into games like this hoping that we'd play well. We certainly don't play to lose. But maybe not having that belief that we're supposed to win games like this. I thought coming into this game, these last two days, like our guys had an attitude that this is a game we're supposed to win, and I love that. That's what the good programs do.
"We have a long way to go. We're not close to where we want to be. We still have to get healthy. ... I think we've got a lot better basketball to play. But from what we've been through, the schedule we've played through 11 games, I think we've played six high major opponents in 11 games. To be 9-2 and to play teams like Butler and Notre Dame, you've got to feel good about where we're at. I know our guys do."
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned coming out of Saturday's near-disaster. This isn't the first time this happened this season, as Law alluded to. Northwestern led in the final minute in each of its losses, especially and maddeningly fumbling away that game against Notre Dame.
Saturday saw the Cats race out to their huge lead, up by 22 with 10 minutes left. But then they ran out of gas. Collins talked about it.
"I thought we got fatigued. I just did," Collins said. "I thought we got tired, and I thought we expended a lot of energy the first 30 minutes. ... I thought we were just kind of trying to get through the rest. Every dead ball, I saw guys on their knees, and I just kept telling them, 'eight minutes, six minutes, four minutes, two minutes.' And I thought more than us not wanting to win or not expecting to win, I just thought their quickness and athleticism kind of wore us down a little bit. And we were just trying to get to the finish line."
They barely made it. Another few minutes, and they might've been passed. That's not going to fly against the Wisconsins, Indianas and Purdues once Big Ten play starts.
But from a big-picture standpoint, Northwestern is still very much alive when it comes to reaching the Big Dance for the first time ever and it has a pretty nice resume to back it up. Conference play will determine the Cats' ultimate fate, and the biggest key to reaching the Madness will obviously be avoiding the horrendous losing streaks that have doomed Collins in his first three seasons: seven games in 2014, 10 in 2015 and an eight-of-10 skid last season.
But as for now, like the man said, "you've got to feel good about where we're at."