The first question of Bill Carmody’s press conference, following a 55-48 upset of No. 12 Minnesota, posed a comparison to last year’s Northwestern team. He chuckled at such a premise.
“That was so long ago, I can’t even remember,” he replied.
Those Wildcats had four different starters in the lineup and failed to meet their lofty expectations, with so-close losses being their greatest downfall. This Northwestern team has a different narrative.
The more than 3,000 empty seats in Welsh-Ryan Arena detail the lack of expectations for a team that wasn’t supposed to win many games—not without key players like Jershon Cobb and Drew Crawford in uniform. Even those who paid to watch this team would have conceded a victory over one of the Big Ten’s best was unlikely.
That Northwestern wasn’t supposed to make the NCAA tournament. This group, without two of its stars, wasn’t given a chance. Just 10 days ago, when the Wildcats were humiliated by Iowa, that notion was justified. Since then, Northwestern has won two games over ranked opponents.
“We’ve matured a lot,” said senior forward Jared Swopshire, who led all scorers with 16 points. “Guys have really been paying attention in scout. We’ve had a few tough losses, but we’ve done some good things. We’ve tried to learn from those things and move forward.”
Swopshire has been the main reason for Northwestern’s recent success. The fifth-year senior, a transfer from Louisville, has much more on his plate with this team.
“He was a role player at Louisville,” Carmody said. “It has been hard for him. Since day one, we’ve been telling him to be aggressive. [Swopshire has] to do more here.”
The first half was ugly for Northwestern, as it allowed 15 offensive rebounds and 26 in total. However, Minnesota had its own issues, shooting just 29 percent from the field. The Wildcats needed to make some adjustments, and they needed the experienced Swopshire to lead the way.
Carmody switched Northwestern to the 1-3-1 zone defense, while creating ways to be successful in the rebounding category.
“They were frustrated with the 1-3-1,” senior guard Reggie Hearn said. “They couldn’t figure it out. They tried to resort to beating us up on the boards. Thanks to Swop, we wouldn’t allow that in the second half.”
Northwestern would embark on a 23-5 second-half run, giving it a nine-point lead with just over four minutes remaining. Minnesota was rattled by that point, and a comeback wasn’t happening.
“If you’re not careful, it can get you out of your game,” Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said.
It’s that defensive effort which kept the Wildcats feeling confident as they pushed to close out the victory. Unlike his coach, Reggie Hearn conceded those countless close losses he has experienced were on his mind. But he’s in agreement, this team is different.
“This year, our defense is a lot better,” he said. “That has helped us close out games."