Scottie Lindsey's return key to Northwestern's NCAA hopes

Timing — and winning — is everything for Northwestern.

And the timing of the mono bug biting Scottie Lindsey couldn't have come at a worse time for a team trying to make program history.

If the Wildcats wish to remove themselves from a short list of never-been-to-the-NCAA-tournament programs that also includes Army, The Citadel, St. Francis (N.Y.) and William & Mary, there is plenty of work ahead.

Some of that work will have to be done without Lindsey, the Wildcats' leading scorer and second-best defender who hasn't played the last two games. Not so coincidentally, the Wildcats lost both games — at Purdue and at home against Illinois.

The first was understandable. The second was alarming considering Illinois hadn't won a true road game since February 2016.

"A lot of disappointed faces in the locker room," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said Tuesday night after the 68-61 loss to the Illini. "But we're just going to keep plugging along, get ready for the next one."

Looking out for No. 1, not to mention two No. 2s in its final seven regular-season games, seems a daunting task for the Wildcats, who visit Big Ten-leading Wisconsin on Sunday. Illinois native Ethan Happ leads the Badgers, who have seven in a row and are 13-0 at home.

Three days later, second-place Maryland and Melo Trimble come to Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Hints of Lindsey's possible return for that game were heard Tuesday. Collins has said time and again that Lindsey will return "when he's ready."

But will it be too late for the Wildcats?

Not necessarily.

If Northwestern loses its next two, a signature opportunity still awaits in the regular-season finale at home against tied-for-second Purdue.

Win one of those three and the Wildcats could receive the coveted invitation that never has come.

But that's assuming Northwestern beats Michigan and Illinois and Indiana and Rutgers in a Big Ten season that has defied explanation and lacked sheer dominance.

"It's crazy," Collins said. "Everyone is good. If you don't play well you could lose to anyone. There's a million examples of that this year."

Lindsey's absence has caused a ripple effect on the roster. Freshman Isiah Brown has started the last two games, subtracting from the Wildcats' depth. Bryant McIntosh has looked tired at times while trying to carry the offense.

"Probably so," Collins said. "There's a lot on him now. You take 16 points out of the lineup (in Lindsey), there's going to be more on those (other) guys."

McIntosh acknowledged after the Purdue loss that the team misses Lindsey, but said he hasn't necessarily changed his game because of his absence.

Northwestern, though, has been on the other side of injury fortunes. Nebraska was without its leading rebounder, Simeon product Ed Morrow, when it lost to the Wildcats on Jan. 26.

The Wildcats then pasted Indiana, which was without two of its top players (James Blackmon and OG Anunoby), 68-55 on Jan. 29.

"We're going to have to figure it out," Collins said. "I don't know how long Scott's going to be out. Everybody's dealing with it."

This year isn't last year, though, when the Wildcats started 3-2 in conference, lost five in a row and tumbled out of the NCAA tournament picture when they limped to an 8-10 Big Ten record.

"We have to keep our composure," sophomore Dererk Pardon said. "We know it's a long season. We still have (seven) rounds left."

Northwestern has fielded a basketball team since 1901. The Wildcats were selected national champions for the 1930-31 season. Heck, the school was even the host for the first NCAA tournament championship game in 1939.

Now the Wildcats would just like to be guests for once.

pskrbina@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribSkrbina

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