Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Why I’ve Bought into Chris Collins and #NUEra of NU Basketball



Usually accomplishing something nobody else has done is a pretty difficult task. That’s the reason why nobody has accomplished it. For Chris Collins to take over Northwestern’s basketball program and take the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament seems a nearly impossible task, but somehow it seems somewhat less impossible than it did two weeks ago. Still, Northwestern has had decent seasons in basketball before most recently under Bill Carmody but also under Rich Falk, Ricky Byrdsong, and Kevin O’Neil. So the question becomes can Collins move Northwestern from the ceiling of a respectable season (which ends in the NIT) to a great season which ends in the NCAA Tournament? I’m starting to think the answer is yes.

I’ll admit I was uncertain when it became clear Chris Collins was the target of Northwestern AD Jim Phillips in his search for Bill Carmody’s replacement. Sure, I was aware of the fact Collins worked for Coach K at Duke and his father’s NBA career and his USA basketball credentials, but I worried because there hadn’t been a coach in nearly two decades hired to be a head coach in the Big Ten without previous college head coaching experience. Two decades! And Phillips was giving Collins the most difficult job in the conference. I mean sure someone with no head coaching experience might succeed at Michigan State, but Northwestern?!?!?! It seemed almost unfair to Collins no matter how much experience he had as an assistant or what coaching resources he could call upon. I was nervous.

I became less nervous when I watched the press conference in which Phillips introduced Collins. Sure, the job still seemed nearly impossible and I wondered if Chris Collins really knew the challenge he was getting himself into but I liked the way he approached the presser. You could tell he was genuinely excited for the job and that this was a moment he’d waited for since his first days as an assistant coach and maybe since he’d left college. Given that excitement it made me think he’d probably be able to connect that excited to some decent recruits and maybe we’d see a talent uptick at Northwestern in the long term. It certainly sounded like he would put together a good coaching staff to help him recruit and mold talent when he added former NU star Patrick Baldwin and his father’s former NBA assistant Brian James (and later local product Armon Gates). But no matter how good those guys were going to be at recruiting they still would be tested as coaches because they’d likely never land top-50 products at Northwestern. To their credit they’ve come close with top-70 product Vic Law, but it still looks like Northwestern will be a roster of mostly three-star recruits with an occasional four-star and several two-stars to fill out the lineup. That would be a fine lineup in the MAC but can it win in the Big Ten? Yeah, if the team is well coached.

In the end it was coaching (even when the Wildcats weren’t winning) that led me to believe Chris Collins and his staff will accomplish the impossible—though it might take a couple years (but I hope it happens in two months). When Northwestern struggled to a 7-6 non-conference record and then started the Big Ten 0-3 people pointed to those numbers and some less than stellar statistics and panic seemed to grip the Northwestern fan base. I think even Jim Phillips might have been stricken with panic as he watched DePaul finish off the ‘Cats in the games final seconds thinking that there was no way Bill Carmody would have lost that game.

As I watched the ‘Cats struggle, though, I noticed something was becoming very clear. The team was well-coached. Sure, the offensive PPP stat was brutal, but it was brutal because the players missed a ton of open shots. If Collins himself, or Baldwin, or Gates were shooting those shots they’d have probably been baskets, but Dave Sobolewski and his 17% three-point percentage was making his coach look pretty bad. That’s not to pick on Dave. Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb, and a collection of other Wildcats have games where they miss open shots with great frequency but the fact of the matter is the shots were there and that was the result of good coaching. Something still seemed to missing (well, wins for one) but I was becoming convinced Collins was on to something with the way he was running the team.  

It took a pretty disastrous and embarrassing loss to Iowa to figure out what exactly was that missing link. The problem was defense. Sure, the Wildcats missed open shots a lot, but they got enough they could win if they could just start stopping their opponents at a greater frequency. So Collins, Baldwin, James, and Gates developed a new strategy. They told their team to be blue-collar. To play as hard as they could on defense and keep up that intensity for 40, 45, or 50 minutes. As it turned out the change worked brilliantly. The Wildcats defeated Illinois, the played close with Big Ten leaderMichigan State, they beat Indiana, and they beat Purdue in an amazing double-OT thriller. They’ll now get another chance at Iowa and Wisconsin and they might fail to win both of those contests, but with the intensity they’re playing with now I know NU won’t be out of the fight the way they were in that disastrous loss to the Hawkeyes a couple weeks back. 

The decision to change the team’s approach and get the players to buy in is a sign of good coaching. Not only in altering the game plan, but in getting the team to buy into that change. I have to think it was Collins’s personality which the players seem to love that made Jim Phillips decide to take a chance on a guy with no head coaching experience when many (myself included) didn’t think it was worth such a risk. Some will criticize and say the coaches should have realized NU needed a blue-collar approach sooner and maybe the reason for the delay in the change is Collins hadn’t had previous head coaching experience. At first he probably was coaching NU like Duke because that’s what he was used to seeing and coaching as an assistant these past 13 years. But the fact he changed and realized what he needed to do in order to win actually says more to me about his ability to coach than if he’d been winning from the start. Good coaches need to be able to put ego and stubbornness aside and admit they’re wrong and make adjust if things aren’t going well. I was a fan of Bill Carmody’s era at Northwestern, but I got the impression he wasn’t very willing to change. The Princeton Offense and the zone defense he ran remained the same for many years. Maybe that was part of the reason why NU often defeated talented non-conference opponents under Carmody but often leveled out during Big Ten playy facing opponents who saw the same game plan year after year.

Regardless, the fact that Collins changed and got his players to accept the change so easily gives me great confidence in the future of Northwestern basketball. This year’s team likely won’t be going to the NCAA Tournament (it might even be smart to focus on a CBI-bid instead of the NIT) but with the same level of hard working players and the willingness of coaches to adjust to put those players in the best position to win, I don’t think NCAA-bid is that far off. In fact, I think it’s probably even closer than we think.

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