Northwestern — out of shape, and almost out of time — struggles in follow-up act

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Coach Chris Collins, senior point guard Bryant McIntosh and the Wildcats haven’t been the same this season. | Nam Y. Huh/AP file photo

There’s no nice way to say it about Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and the rest of Northwestern’s veteran returnees from last season’s NCAA Tournament team, the first in school history. There isn’t much feel-good in their follow-up story, and there’s no sense in sugarcoating the truth.

They blew it.

Through 23 games last season, the Wildcats were 18-5 overall, 7-3 in Big Ten play and next to impossible to blow out, having lost only once — in game No. 23 at Purdue — by a double-digit margin. Now, with nearly all the same core players, they’re 13-10, 4-6 and a shell of what they used to be. Average margin of defeat: 15.1 points.

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The ugliest of them was a 36-point loss to Texas Tech in November, the worst beating Northwestern has taken in Chris Collins’ five seasons as coach. McIntosh, the senior point guard, saw it coming.

“I kind of knew we weren’t ready,” he told the Sun-Times on Wednesday, a day before the Wildcats’ game at Wisconsin. “We weren’t really prepared to play a good team. We weren’t mentally ready. I don’t think we were in shape physically. I’m still not sure we’re even really in shape now.”

Collins blew it, too. He sensed well before the season started that something was amiss with his team. He chirped — a little too quietly — at his players that they’d lost their “edge,” but what he did about it simply wasn’t enough.

“Guys were working hard, but you can always notice when there’s an edge to a team,” Collins said. “There’s an edge to their workouts, when they’re lifting weights, when they’re shooting, when they’re practicing. Our guys were working, but we didn’t have that same edge. We didn’t have that same hunger that I had seen the previous couple years.

“At the end of the day, I take responsibility for it. I told them, but I wasn’t as strong as I needed to be with it. I would love to go back and have a heavier hand with those guys and force them [to change].”

What went wrong with the Wildcats, who, in reaching the Big Dance and nearly upsetting top-seeded Gonzaga to advance to the Sweet 16, had been celebrated like never before by fans and fawned over — professionalism be damned — by prominent alumni in the national media?

“We went from everybody’s lovable losers to, all of the sudden, everywhere guys went, we’re getting praised, we’re being told everyone’s coming back, we’re going to be great again, we’re going to be even better,” Collins said. “We just fell into all the human-nature things that are normal.”

McIntosh put it more bluntly: “We thought it was going to be a lot easier. It’s been a really tough season. I’m disappointed in how we handled it. It hurts. There’s definitely a lot of regret.”

A coach who spent his formative years at Duke probably should’ve been better prepared for this. A group of team leaders who backed down from no one and rose to the occasion time and again last season seemed to be wired for better than this.

The Wildcats might have to go 8-0 the rest of the regular season just to land on the NCAA bubble. It might require nothing less than a shocker of a championship in the league tournament at Madison Square Garden for the Purple to party as if the months of November, December and January never happened.

It didn’t have to be this way.

“A senior like Bryant or Scottie or Gavin [Skelly], I don’t want them to feel that regret,” Collins said. “We have to move past those kinds of feelings. You learn from your mistakes. These guys care. They want to leave a legacy here, and they have. Regardless of what happens the rest of this year — and we hope we have a run left in us — what those guys have done for our program and for themselves, to cement what we are, is something they’ll always have.”

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