The affirmation hangs above Chris Collins' desk, a framed photo taken three years ago during what could have been an ordinary Wednesday evening in the Big Ten. In the picture, five Northwestern players gather during a road game at Wisconsin.
Look deeply enough into their collective gaze, like staring into a Magic Eye autostereogram, and eventually their fortitude comes into focus.
As Collins peers up, naming each player — Drew Crawford, Tre Demps, Alex Olah, Sanjay Lumpkin, JerShon Cobb — he can't stress enough how much that night meant and still resonates.
Twenty-seven days before that photo was snapped, Collins' Wildcats hosted the Badgers. In his first conference game, in his first year as a head coach, Collins understood the patience and perseverance needed to scale the mountain in front of him.
But that didn't always lessen the discomfort from the rock slides that frequently battered the Wildcats as they began their climb. And in the first half of that January 2014 game in Evanston, the young coach was nearly ripped right out of his harness.
Wisconsin, on its way to 30 wins and a Final Four trip, reminded Collins of how elite college basketball teams harmonize on both ends of the floor.
Halftime score: Badgers 40, Wildcats 14.
With his home arena lifeless and his team getting pummeled, Collins retreated to the locker room, searching for a message to soothe his players. In that moment, with that 40-14 score leaving him in a daze, he understood how different his struggles would be than they had been for the previous 13 winters at Duke.
"You never have regrets. I'm not saying I had regrets," Collins says. "But I'm sitting by myself and I'm staring at the wall and I'm saying, 'When's the next flight back to Durham?' Like, 'Whoa. This is going to be tough.'"
But now Collins points back to that framed photo in his office, the symbol from four weeks later. With all sorts of pluck and determination, the same Wildcats who got pounded by 27 points at home walked into the Kohl Center and toppled the 14th-ranked Badgers 65-56.
Photos from the Northwestern-Wisconsin game on Feb. 12, 2017, in Madison, Wis.
That game, Collins is certain, is a huge reason the Northwestern program continues on its ascent, heading into March with established resolve and a real chance of securing the program's first NCAA tournament invitation.
"To me," Collins says, "that was the turning point. That night."
It had so little to do with talent or strategy and everything to do with belief and unity and hustle, the seeds from which college basketball magic can sprout.
"I'll always have that picture up," Collins says. "To me that signifies the beginning and what those five guys did to start changing the perception of our place."'Is this the year?'
In the final days of February 2017, the perception of the Northwestern program remains promising. Around the Big Ten, there's universal acknowledgment that the Wildcats are talented, well-coached and — perhaps most significantly — confident in who they are and where they're headed.
Heading into Saturday's game at Indiana, the Wildcats were 20-8, 9-6 in the Big Ten and penciled in as a No. 9 seed in ESPN's latest bracketology prognostication.
Suddenly, the most repeated question on the NU campus — "Is this the year?" — has a new answer. "Maybe" has become "It darn well should be."
"There's a sharpened mindset now," forward Vic Law says, "where we're able to see every game as a next step toward a bigger goal and not just another game."
Still, after being drummed 66-50 at Illinois on Tuesday night, the Wildcats understand they can't exhale with postseason presumptions. Tuesday's loss, with Northwestern firing blanks through a 5-for-27 second half, exposed a team with a thin margin for error. Uncharacteristically, the Wildcats appeared totally spent down the stretch.
"We just didn't have that fight we normally have," Collins acknowledged.
As for how the Wildcats would recharge after such a draining setback, Collins didn't sense he would need many motivational tools.Northwestern coach Chris Collins on win over No. 7 Wisconsin
Northwestern coach Chris Collins reacts to the team's 66-59 win over No. 7 Wisconsin on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. (Paul Skrbina/Chicago Tribune)
Northwestern coach Chris Collins reacts to the team's 66-59 win over No. 7 Wisconsin on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. (Paul Skrbina/Chicago Tribune)See more videos
"I would think at this time of year, this is where you get the most excited," he said. "It's not a marathon anymore."
Through experience, through myriad struggles, through encouraging waves of success, these Wildcats have learned to ride the Big Ten roller coaster with equanimity, conscious not to become overly exhilarated by their thrills or grow too fretful at the dips.
That six-game January winning streak, the program's longest conference surge since 1933? Encouraging, sure, but not to be celebrated as grand.
Back-to-back losses to open February — by 21 points at Purdue, then a sloppy home stumble against Illinois? The Wildcats responded with their signature victory of the season — another "Milestone in Madison" — this one 66-59 over the then-No. 7 Badgers.
"You have to follow your leader," point guard Bryant McIntosh says. "And Coach Collins has done a great job with that, of constantly keeping us focused on the next task.
If that upset of Wisconsin was Northwestern's biggest victory, last weekend's 69-65 escape against Rutgers in Evanston may have been the gutsiest. The Wildcats trailed for more than 13 minutes in the second half. During one drought, they made only one field goal in 11 minutes. Facing a loss that could have sent this season's joyride on a drastic detour, the Wildcats steered around the wreck.
The normally demonstrative Collins struck a more reassuring tone during timeout huddles, continually urging his players with a repetitive command: "Let's find a way. Let's find a way."
McIntosh's go-ahead pull-up 3-pointer in the final minute may have been the most clutch shot all season. Afterward, the junior described the mindset.
"It was more just, 'We're going to find out what we're all about,'" he said. "In that situation in the past, we would fold."
Added Law: "There's a whole new level of trust within the program, where we can lean on each other for strength. When we were going into the huddles, we were looking at each other like, 'We can't lose. We've worked too hard to let games like this slip away.'"
Those are precisely the survival instincts the Wildcats will need to finish the regular season strong and maximize the Big Ten tournament in the days before Selection Sunday.From the ground up
All of this is a testament to the kind of program Collins aspired to build. At his formal introduction as NU coach three years ago, he spoke candidly of the competitiveness and energy he intended to inject into the program. But he also knew the arduous building process required a more detailed plan.
Collins wanted a team known for defensive tenacity. So in his first spring workouts, as he welcomed his new players to the gym, they wondered why there were no basketballs to be found and thus no shots to be taken.
"Right then," says Lumpkin, then a freshman, "I knew things were going to be different around here."
Three years later, Northwestern ranks in the top three in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense, points allowed and blocked shots.
Those workouts, Collins insists, weren't entirely about defense.
"You're going to find out quickly through that who your believers are," he says. "And you only want guys in the boat who want to be in the boat."Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh on his late 3-pointer vs. Rutgers
Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh reacts to his late 3-pointer in the 69-65 win over Rutgers on Feb. 18, 2017. (Paul Skrbina/Chicago Tribune)
Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh reacts to his late 3-pointer in the 69-65 win over Rutgers on Feb. 18, 2017. (Paul Skrbina/Chicago Tribune)See more videos
Collins also wanted to create a program that mirrored his passion. So he encouraged his players to remember their love for the game and be uninhibited in how they expressed that, free to fist-pump, chest-bump and roar — just as he has always done as a player and coach.
"I just think that's important," Collins says. "Don't act like you're at the dentist's office. Inherently, growing up as a kid, you must have put all this time into basketball because you enjoyed it. So show that. Feel that."
Most of all, Collins knew he needed his first recruiting class to provide a sturdy foundation for the long term. So piece by piece — Law, Gavin Skelly, McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey — Collins found players who fit and who cared deeply about the process of lifting the program to prominence.
Law, whose intelligence complements the St. Rita alumnus' athleticism and length, heard Collins' impassioned recruiting pleas not as an inflated sales pitch but as a promise of where Northwestern was headed.
"It was his passion and his energy for the culture he wanted to create," Law says. "And I was sold on how genuine he was in his belief that we would get there."
McIntosh, an obsessive J.J. Redick fan while growing up in Indiana, was first magnetized by Collins' tight bond with the former Duke guard and his role in molding Redick into the national player of the year. Because of that, McIntosh felt an instant connection. And the eager point guard, like Collins, saw Northwestern's lack of history as an enticing challenge.
Somehow, those bannerless rafters at Welsh-Ryan and that short NBA alumni list never felt like a drawback.
"I saw a chance to leave a legacy and be remembered forever," McIntosh says.Belief system
Tuesday's lackluster loss in Champaign shook the Wildcats, reviving that inevitable skepticism of whether they're truly steeled enough to endure the late-season grind and the weight of all this NCAA tournament pressure.
Collins, though, may be the ideal leader to bring the Wildcats back to center.
He was in sixth grade when his dad, Doug, was hired to coach Michael Jordan and the Bulls, and he was a freshman at Glenbrook North when Doug was axed. So even in adolescence, Collins learned to develop a thick skin and a filter for outside praise and criticism.
Furthermore, his 17 seasons at Duke — four as a player, 13 as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski — included a total of 267 weeks ranked in the AP top 10, with 62 of those at No. 1. So, yes, Collins has earned a doctorate in understanding pressure and expectation.
He continues to emphasize the belief breakthrough these Wildcats have experienced, embodying a steadying self-assurance that began to emerge last spring.
As the Wildcats felt their collective growth and saw their potential, the natural push to invest in making the next big step triggered a confidence swell.
Says Collins: "There was a little more cockiness of, 'Hey, we are a good team.' It was just a different mentality, a different hunger."
Collins and his players know full well why the TV cameras have been showing up in larger hordes the past six weeks, why pop-ins from Sports Illustrated, the Wall Street Journal, ESPN and USA Today have become routine. The hook of this saga is Northwestern's never-been-done-before quest to make the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats embrace all of that — the newfound renown, the anticipation, the pressure. But it also has become woven into their mindset that making the field of 68, while a significant milestone, cannot be confused as the destination.
"People might think that's the mountaintop for us," Collins says. "But when I came here, it wasn't about that. Honestly, to me it's a step along the way. I came here to build a program. I want us to have a culture and a belief where this is something we're consistently achieving."
Each step, of course, has its own significance. Which means Collins should probably keep a few spots open on his office wall.
Tribune reporter Shannon Ryan ranks the Big Ten men's basketball teams through the action of Feb. 19, 2017.(Shannon Ryan)
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