Chris Collins won’t say Cats will be better — but they will be

SALT LAKE CITY — The common read on the Big Ten entering the NCAA Tournament was that it was sputtering to the end of a subpar season. It’s funny how one very strong weekend in March can reshape a conference’s reputation.

It makes it a bit harder to predict how far up the ladder Northwestern — fresh off its first Big Dance — might be able to climb in the 2017-18 campaign. But this much is obvious: The Wildcats should be even better.

Maybe a lot better.

“Yeah, I think you’ve got to be real careful,” coach Chris Collins said. “Because I tell the guys all the time that — even if you have a lot returning — no two teams are ever the same. We’ll be a different team next year. Hopefully better. But I can’t say that right now.”

An emotional Bryant McIntosh checks out of Northwestern's loss to Gonzaga. (Christian Petersen)

That’s OK. We can say it for him.

The ever-underrated point guard and team leader Bryant McIntosh will be a senior. Surrounding him will be terrific wings Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey and tough-minded post man Dererk Pardon. That’s four starters back, which is only some of the good news.

Aaron Falzon, who started as a freshman and drilled 63 three-pointers, will be good to go after missing most of this season with a knee injury. Rapolas Ivanauskas, the former Barrington standout who missed the season after shoulder surgery, will make his long-awaited debut. Isiah Brown, Gavin Skelly and Barrett Benson all will be back in the fold. And the Collins recruiting train keeps running on time.

“I think next year we’ll be a really, really good team,” McIntosh said.

Big Dance-good? No school knows better than Northwestern how hard it is to get there. But — easy for us to say — the Wildcats ought to be able to find their way back.

“I feel like this is just a building block, just a beginning,” Law said. “I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

Parting thoughts

McIntosh called moving on without seniors Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn “heartbreaking.”

“But this is a group that will be connected for the rest of our lives because of all the things we accomplished,” he said.

Like most good teams, the Wildcats were a very close bunch.

“I think what I’ll remember most is just the love that I share with my teammates, man,” Law said. “This is such a special moment. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this for the rest of my life.”

Asked what will endure with him about this team, Collins spoke of the manner in which it “tackled” injuries, high-pressure moments and whatever else was in its way. That includes the task of trying to catch No. 1 seed Gonzaga Saturday after falling behind by 22.

“A lot of teams would’ve rolled over at halftime,” he said. “It wasn’t going well. We weren’t playing well. They were clicking on all cylinders. You’re down by 20. And our guys refused to go (out) like that.”

For the record

Northwestern never got closer than five points down in the second half of a 79-73 loss to the Zags. Of course, the deficit would’ve been three had the officials called goaltending when Zach Collins stuck his hand through the rim to block a Pardon shot with just under five minutes to go.

And if the violation hadn’t been missed?

“Do I, in my heart, think if Dererk gets that call and we cut it to three, we have a great chance to win? Yes, I believe we had a great chance to win if the correct call was made.”

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