Every new head coach goes through a learning curve. They have new personnel, new facilities, and new responsibilities. They are in charge of gameplans, recruiting, and player relations, among other things. That learning curve flew by very quickly for the Big Ten's newest head coach, Chris Collins.
Northwestern started this season off cold. They lost two of their first three games, including a heartbreaker at home against Illinois State. The Wildcats struggled through the non-conference schedule, losing three games in the Las Vegas Invitational and later falling to DePaul, which started a four-game losing streak at the start of conference play. Northwestern lost to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa by a combined 76 points, all of which were 20+ point losses.
Then, all of a sudden, something clicked. In a packed Welsh-Ryan Arena on Jan. 12, Northwestern surprised everyone by beating a then-ranked Illinois team in a low-scroing affair. Collins swung his gameplan that night to emphasizing defense, rebounding, and patient offense.
Collins nearly slowed the pace to a halt against Illinois. The Wildcats only put up 43 shots and milked the shot clock on almost every possession. In fact, as soon as the 'Cats secured a defense rebound, Collins threw his arms up in the air to stop Tre Demps or JerShon Cobb from pushing the ball up the floor, and instead, have them set up the offense.
Collins and the Northwestern bench had never been so animated in game. Collins was barking out signals while the bench was on its feet snapping towels and celebrating each defensive stop. The energy has persisted since that game, and the players have embraced their new identity, focusing on defense.
Collins has made protecting the hoop the first priority defensively. Guards are doubling down on opposing big men to help out Alex Olah and Nikola Cerina, who cannot move with more agile forwards. The shooting percentage of opposing big men has plummeted due to the added pressure down low.
In their respective games against Northwestern, Noah Vonleh went 5-15, Frank Kaminsky was 3-9, and A.J. Hammons shot 3-10. Opposing frontcourts are getting plenty of free throw attempts and putting the Wildcats in foul trouble, but they are not getting easy buckets around the rim.
Opponents have struggled just as much, if not more, on three point shooting against NU. Collins has emphasized closing out on perimeter shots, and the personnel is there to do it. The length and athleticism of Sanjay Lumpkin, JerShon Cobb, and Drew Crawford helps them recover quickly on swing passes and kick-outs from the post.
In their last seven games, Northwestern has held opponents to 25 percent on three pointers. During that stretch, six of the Big Ten's top ten three point shooters faced Northwestern, and they combined for a dismal 3-24 from deep.
Northwestern may still be winless in conference if Collins had not mixed up the gameplan and challenged his team to step up defensively. The Wildcats have won five of their last seven, and in four of those games, the opposing team shot less than 30 percent from the field.
The 'Cats have moved all the way up to 11th in the country in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, which was desperately needed considering they are 314th in adjusted offense. The offense's woes have continued during the winning streak, but the backcourt is showing signs of improvement.
Drew Crawford is looking like a leader and team captain again, averaging 20.6 points per game in his last five outings. He dropped 30 points in an upset victory in Madison on Jan. 29. Crawford was even named the Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week for his strong performances against Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Chris Collins has developed Tre Demps into a reliable point guard and given him the confidence to become one of the clutchest players in the conference. Demps hit big shots down the stretch in each of Northwestern's last five wins. He scored 16 points after halftime in the double-OT victory against Purdue, scored 11 points in a row to help NU pull away from Indiana, and made a go-ahead three pointer with under a minute to play against Minnesota.
Collins has instilled a swagger in this team and given them an identity. The lackluster team that loses to Illinois State is out the door, and in it's place has stepped a determined squad ready to claw it's way through a brutal Big Ten schedule. Collins' mantra "Pound the Rock" couldn't be more fitting for the grind-it-out style of play that NU has acquired.
Less than one month ago Northwestern was 7-9 and on a four-game losing streak. They were already slotted for last place in the Big Ten. Now, 12-11 and fourth place in the conference, NU is amidst one of the biggest turnarounds you will ever see in college basketball, yet the Wildcats are still debatably the least talented team in the Big Ten.
There's no doubt that Northwestern's season reversal would not have been possible without Collins. And if they continue on this pace, the 'Cats will be in the mix for a NCAA tournament berth, potentially their first in program history. Through gameplanning, confidence building, and reinvigorating a program, Chris Collins is doing more with what he's got than any other coach in the Big Ten.