EVANSTON-Whoever organized Northwestern's conference schedule must have been trying to put a death sentence on the Wildcats.
But this team just won't have it.
Saturday's 55-54 win at Minnesota put coach Chris Collins' team at 5-5 in the Big Ten, making them the first to 10 games played. This was before several teams had even played nine.
It seemed like a cruel punishment to put on the team that may have the least depth in the conference. Drew Crawford leads the Big Ten in minutes per game, including 40.3 over the last four games (counting the double-overtime win against Purdue, in which he played all 50).
Add to that JerShon Cobb, who hasn't come out of a game since Jan. 25 against Iowa, and Sanjay Lumpkin, who probably wouldn't be hitting the bench at all if not for foul trouble.
Now, the toughest part is over. NU still travels to Michigan State and Ohio State, but for the most part, it gets easier.
"We've run through the gauntlet of who we've played, a lot of teams that have been in the Top 10 at some point," Collins said.
It always helps to get a week of rest as well. The Wildcats finally got their bye this week, and they had plenty of time to get healthy and prepare for Saturday's home matchup with Nebraska.
But things will be different now. The surprise factor is gone. Northwestern is actually favored to win, and it's a completely new mindset.
Still, it's tough to believe that this team, with this offense, will blow anyone out down the stretch in Big Ten play.
"A lot of these games in the Big Ten are going to be grind-it-out games," Crawford said.
It's time to see what this team is really made of. The Wildcats have got the nation's attention, to the point where some even think they have an outside chance of making it to the NCAA Tournament.
"If we keep getting wins like this, I don't know why we couldn't do that," Lumpkin said. "But we've just got to take it one win at a time."
As all the hype rises around the team, Collins is trying to keep a level head. Northwestern's situation looks extremely favorable right now, but too much confidence could be a negative.
No matter how much attention this team is getting, he's going to keep coaching the same way he did when his team started this great stretch of play nearly a month ago.
"We're the same team people were talking about when we were 0-3," Collins said. "It's never quite as bad as it may seem, and it's never quite as good. You've got to stay the course."