There were conversations before the Illinois game that went like this:
"What are they gonna lose by? 20? 30?"
"They might win one Big Ten game. No way it's tonight."
Nine days later, there is a team triumphant, because damn, we've never seen Northwestern play this hard.
The Wildcats stole their third upset on Tuesday, stunning Purdue 63-60 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
When Drew Crawford sealed the game with a block, the bench erupted with more intensity than in past games. It's starting to become habit.
Two overtimes later, with three players fouled out and no point guards on the active roster, it looked like they could've gone another dozen rounds.
You don't like it? Turn off the TV.
Northwestern lacks talent, so much so that their own coach admits they can't score. They're bad at twos, threes, free throws, layups, everything.
But opponents be warned: They play harder than you. They slide for every loose ball and get most of them. They slow you down until you panic.
Sound easy to stop? Ask, uh, Illinois, Indiana and now Purdue—casualties of Chris Collins' genius and a team that deserves your attention.
This year was an afterthought, until they proved otherwise. It looked like the worst team in the Big Ten, and maybe in recent Northwestern history.
There was Illinois, which could have been the fluke. There was Indiana, which opened eyes. And there was Purdue, tonight, the most thrilling environment in Welsh-Ryan since the Wildcats beat Michigan State in 2012.
Tre Demps continued to act as late-game savior, hitting shots when every single make mattered. Drew Crawford is–even through struggles–the proverbial "backbone" of his team. Jershon Cobb tossed in contested midrange jumpers.
You could name just about everyone, because they need everyone to buy in. Aaron Liberman, James Montgomery III and Nate Taphorn all saw the floor down the stretch. They stared down life without big men (Alex Olah and Nikola Cerina) as though their videogame-small lineup could beat everyone in the conference.
Tonight, it was theirs. It's never been like that before. They're daring teams to step in the paint or to find open looks. Then, they bleed the shot clock and pray their shots go in. Finally, they get back and love defense.
Pat Forde didn't like it, comparing it to the "flu lingering for one more day." Was it bad? Or was it one team trying incredibly hard, overachieving, and bringing the fan base to its feet?
Because they did just that. The sixty-somethings at Welsh-Ryan Arena were screaming after every play. (They were even on their feet.)
It wasn't just one win. It wasn't just three. This was validation of a season.
They'll lose many more, as hard as they try, but they'll make it all mean something. It's a sendoff for Crawford, an affirmation of Collins' excellence and a reminder that the intangibles can often beat everything else.
Context can be mighty funny. There's a good chance Northwestern undoes the string of success by losing to Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota in this next three-game stretch. We exaggerate the highs (guilty) and sob through the lows; this team's somewhere in between.
This NU team was made for basketball clichés. They play their hearts out. They put it on the line. They're grinders.
In this lost season, they found a whole lot to cheer for.