This isn’t a fantasy, and you aren’t getting Punk’d. The Northwestern men’s basketball team is currently fourth in the Big Ten, and has more conference wins (five, to be exact) than Ohio State, Wisconsin and Indiana.
Wasn’t this supposed to be a rebuilding year, though? It doesn't seem that way anymore, considering the ‘Cats are in great position to make the NIT and could become the first team in school history to play in the Big Dance.
You could talk about the leadership of Drew Crawford, the comeback of JerShon Cobb or the clutch shooting of Tre Demps all you want, but at the end of the day, the majority of the credit has to go to head coach Chris Collins.
No one deserves the Big Ten Coach of the Year Award more than he does.
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Iowa’s Fran McCaffery can both make great cases for the award, but neither has overcome more obstacles than the Northbrook, Ill. native.
When Collins replaced Bill Carmody back in March 2013, he was in unfamiliar territory, with no collegiate head coaching experience. Sure, he was Duke’s assistant coach for 13 years, and undoubtedly learned a lot under Coach K’s tutelage, but in basketball, the assistant and head coaching jobs are like apples and oranges.
Early on, his inexperience showed.
At the start of Big Ten play, the ‘Cats were a dismal 7-6, having lost to Illinois State and DePaul, while narrowly escaping defeat against Brown and IUPUI. No doubt Collins was feeling the heat. The pressure mounted even further as the ‘Cats were decimated in their first three Big Ten contests, leading some fans to lose confidence in their big offseason acquisition.
He could have easily mailed it in. He could have let this season go by like so many other men’s basketball seasons have, in bitter agony. He could have blamed their struggles on the fact that he inherited all of “Carmody’s guys,” ones he didn’t recruit.
But he didn’t. Rather, in three weeks, after unexpected wins over five Big Ten foes, he brought respect back to this historically inept program and galvanized the student body in the process. When people talk about the team nowadays they aren’t asking when our new recruits can start practicing; they’re saying things like, “The team has a good chance of winning six of their next eight games.”
Defense has been the key thus far. In Big Ten play, the ‘Cats have the third best field goal percentage defense in the conference at 40 percent. Collins understood that Northwestern wouldn’t stand a chance against the more athletic teams in the conference if they played an up-tempo game. By slowing down the offense, and using most of the team’s energy on the defensive end, the ‘Cats have been able to frustrate opponents and force a lot of bad shots.
Essentially, he’s given this team something they didn't have under Carmody: an identity. The ‘Cats will bring the heat defensively with players who are extremely agile and will take their time offensively to find open jump shots.
Plus he’s done it with the least experienced team of any coach in the conference. Collins took over the team at the same time Reggie Hearn and Jared Swopshire, two key contributors from last year, left. Besides Crawford, who could be counted on for his talent and veteran know-how, he was left with Cobb, a player coming off a year-long suspension; Alex Olah, a big man who wasn’t sure where he belonged on the court; and Demps, a volume shooter who gets trigger happy at times. All three of these supposed “misfits” have played extraordinarily at times this year, and Collins has to be given some credit for making them respectable assets.
Collins has already achieved so much basketball success in his life. He was voted “Mr. Basketball” at Illinois and attended Duke University where he was named to the All-ACC rookie team in 1993. Nonetheless, he deserves to be recognized for his achievements once more. But if you asked him about the possibility of winning the coaching award, he’d probably want to change topics, or deflect the credit to his players.
That’s just the type of guy he is.