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Cat Power: Northwestern Rides Defense to Big Wins

Northwestern head coach Chris Collins worked under Duke's Mike Krzyzewski before landing in Evanston but it's clear that the Wildcats' new head honcho is a fan of Wisconsin's Bo Ryan. How has Collins pushed the Wildcats to one of their best weeks in conference play in recent years and one of the biggest road wins in program history?

Northwestern celebrates after a hard-fought double overtime win over the Purdue Boilermakers
Northwestern celebrates after a hard-fought double overtime win over the Purdue Boilermakers
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

No one thought Northwestern would be very good this year, like most years. Like most years, Northwestern isn't very good. They're not going to make the NCAA tournament and at just 10-10 they'd need to make a serious push to contend for even an NIT bid. But they're not all bad, which is better than many expected, and the run they've been on for the past week or so shows some positive signs for Collins and crew as they move forward.

Northwestern is 3-1 over its last four games including a loss to the league-leading Michigan State Spartans and wins over Purdue, Illinois, and Indiana. To be fair, Illinois, Purdue, and Indiana may ALL miss the NCAA tournament but all of those teams are also more talented than the Wildcats. And Northwestern played Michigan State tough. Despite missing the services of starting point guard Dave Sobolewski, Northwestern's team play was able to overwhelm its opponents.

Chris Collins is clearly a fan of Bo Ryan and the Wisconsin Badgers; so far, his game plans would be right at home in Madison. That seems ironic given Wisconsin's recent defensive struggles, but the two teams do employ similar game plans. Northwestern plays at the slowest tempo in the conference, averaging 20.4 seconds per possession on offense. Collins' first team has built its identity on limiting mistakes, limiting possessions, and staunch defense - the Wildcats adjusted defense is 18th nationally though they're currently only 5th in defensive efficiency in conference play.

They're not the best defensive team in the league, but what they have accomplished there is nothing to sneeze at either. When you're facing some of the less potent offenses in the league - Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois rank 8th, 6th, and 10 in offensive efficiency within conference play respectively - it's also enough to win. Northwestern's ability to play tough defense is impressive for a couple reasons. Alex Olah, while much improved, isn't as athletic as Nnanna Egwu, Noah Vonleh, A.J. Hammons, or many of the other post players he has faced this year and yet, he has posted the 6th best block percentage in the conference so far.

Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb are terrific athletes, but for the most part Northwestern has relied on smart switching, help side defense, and funneling drivers into Alex Olah to control their more athletic opponents. And with the Wildcats now employing a stall ball offense, their opponents' mistakes are magnified. A.J. Hammons was unstoppable in Evanston, but a brief spurt of poor guard play down the stretch in regulation and again in the 2nd overtime kept the ball from entering the post and doomed the Boilers. Indiana's Noah Vonleh played very well, but the Hoosiers attempted a few too many threes and lost to Northwestern in Assembly Hall for just the 3rd time in program history. Illinois couldn't make shots near the rim and lost a game in Evanston where neither team reached 50 points.

Chris Collins' brand of basketball won't warm the hearts of anyone that complains about the pace of a typical Wisconsin game, but Northwestern fans want to win. They want to finally reach the NCAA tournament. In the last week, Collins has made me a believer. Next year the Wildcats welcome one of their most talented recruits ever, Victor Law. They'll return nearly everyone outside of the very talented Drew Crawford. And they wouldn't be a bad bet to sneak into the NCAAs. You'll get good value at least.


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