Monday, February 3, 2014

Northwestern is the 4th Best Team in The Big Ten…No, Really!

At this moment Northwestern is in 4th place in the Big Ten. I know the Wildcats probably aren’t the fourth best team in the conference based on talent, but the reality is they’ve played 10 conference games (more than any other team to this point) and they’re sitting in fourth place against the league’s toughest schedule. In contrast Wisconsin below NU and has played the second easiest. The Wildcats run up the Big Ten standings started with a 49-43 win over Illinois in early January which started them on a 5-2 stretch which has evened their Big Ten record at 5-5 and placed them ahead of Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana, and Illinois in the standings just to name a few. It’s been a remarkable run led by first year Head Coach Chris Collins’s great coaching job and senior captain Drew Crawford becoming a true team leader starting in the ‘Cats win over Purdue and continuing with two remarkable efforts in road upsets at Wisconsin and Minnesota.

You can search through stats and strategy to better understand why the Wildcats have seemingly magically transformed. But I think the real explanation has a lot to do with a change in attitude which occurred after the loss to Iowa. A lot of the focus has justifiably been on the ‘Cats defensive change. The decision to pack the defense in the lane to keep opponents on the perimeter, close hard on three point shooters, and force their opponents to take poor shots has kept the Wildcats hang close with more powerful offenses. The Wildcats have also been assisted by their decision to slow down the game and not try to get into a run and gun game with more powerful Big Ten teams. Limiting possessions helps a team like Northwestern which might not shoot lights out but can play defense. It makes each possession critical and if the other team struggles shooting the ball the Wildcats can take advantage of that poor shooting and win with a couple clutch shots (more than likely from Tre Demps).

Still, as I noted above, the best change in the team has been in attitude. This was a team which looked beaten before the ball was tipped a month ago. Now, they seem confident they can compete with anyone anywhere. That attitude won’t always result in wins, but it’ll at least mean the team won’t get overly discouraged when they suffer the inevitable tough losses which are bound to occur. The event that I believe really made the new attitude work was the way Chris Collins handled Drew Crawford in the Purdue game. In the past Drew was a player who was either very good if he got hot early or kind of disappeared if things didn’t go well early. In the Purdue game things didn’t go well for Crawford early, but Collins didn’t let the team stop giving him the ball. Instead, he kept setting up plays to give Crawford shots. Even when Crawford kept missing and even when he admitted he was discouraged Collins kept calling his plays. Eventually, Crawford made the shot which put the ‘Cats up for good and made the defensive play to win the game. I really believe it was Collins showing confidence in his captain that helped the rest of the team start to have confidence as well. When Tre Demps declares Collins “has his back” more than any coach he’s ever been around it says a lot. This is a team that trusts each other and their coaching staff. I think that’s why not only have we seen more success from Crawford, but we’ve seen Demps, JerShon Cobb, Kale Abrahamson, Nikola Cerina, and Alex Olah step up as well. Will everything go perfect from now on? I doubt it but if the team continues to follow their game plan and trust each other I think the success which has occurred over the past seven games will continue to occur more often than not.  

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