First it was Jershon Cobb's suspension. Then it was Drew Crawford's torn labrum. Reggie Hearn dealt with a nagging ankle injury, and the injured Nikola Cerina and Sanjay Lumpkin have also missed extended time.
Fans have been down on this team, and not without reason: Northwestern has had its share of disappointments. The annual cries for Bill Carmody's head have resumed. Last weekend's crushing loss at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes nearly squashed all hope for a competitive Big Ten finish.
Except there were the Wildcats, defeating favored Illinois on the road Thursday. There they were again Sunday afternoon, down only five to second-ranked Indiana in the second half. For all Northwestern's inexperience, injuries and inconsistency, it has persevered just enough to keep things interesting.
Carmody cited a distinct identity finally emerging on the court after Crawford's injury. Hearn admitted to a sense of urgency beginning to drive the seniors. It's clear that the Wildcats have reached a turning point, Sunday's result aside.
What was once a team with many new pieces has become a cohesive unit. At this point, there are no more excuses to be made. There are no dominant players here, no unstoppable rebounders or athletic wonders. But Northwestern seems to understand that, and it's working.
From Reggie Hearn's emergence as a scorer, to Dave Sobolewski's grit and Jared Swopshire's improvement, the Wildcats have become greater than the sum of their parts. They've defended with tenacity as a team. They've moved the ball, controlled the pace and found ways to stay in games. And as long as they do those things, there's plenty at stake the rest of the season.
The freshmen have had their growing pains, but are showing signs of maturity. Alex Olah has shown signs of improvement, respectably defending Indiana's Cody Zeller for stretches. Tre Demps finished with 11 points and appears to be earning the confidence of his coaches. Mike Turner and Kale Abrahamson have flashed the potential to become contributors.
More than half of the Big Ten slate remains, and Northwestern's seniors will have the chance to dictate their story. The freshmen have every opportunity to gain confidence and acclimate themselves to conference play. If the Wildcats continue to give the effort, Carmody's typically outstanding gameplanning will keep them in the thick of things.
In a season full of surprises, Northwestern has fought on and isn't giving up anytime soon. Without Crawford and Cobb, they've remained a team worth watching. And perhaps the biggest surprise is that they still aren't done with regards to March.
Ninth-ranked Minnesota comes to town Wednesday, and the spread will favor the Golden Gophers. Northwestern's recipe for success will be no secret: an all-around team effort. It won't be easy, it may not be pretty, but if there's one thing we've learned it's this: the Wildcats aren't about to quit.
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