By Chris Emma-
MINNEAPOLIS (CBS) –– — On the elevated floor of Williams Arena, coaches are offered a stool. Chris Collins declined.
Through each possession, Northwestern’s first-year coach paced back and forth while instructing the team’s new-look offense or directing its lockdown defense. With the Wildcats’ grind-it-out strategy, there’s no time to sit and be comfortable.
Northwestern’s 55-54 win against Minnesota brought it to fourth place in the Big Ten and its first three-game road winning streak since 1960, 14 years before Collins was born.
“It’s about those players, it really is,” Collins said after the win. “I’m just trying to put them in position to be successful. My staff and I are working really hard to do that. I’m not out there playing defense, I’m not out there getting rebounds, I’m not out there taking big shots. It’s about those guys.”
For Northwestern, it’s a team effort. In early January, the Wildcats dropped to 0-3 in Big Ten play after a 26-point loss at Iowa and returned to Evanston feeling beleaguered. The team held a meeting and broke huddle with a simple goal: Make something of the season.
The Wildcats responded with wins in five of their next seven games, including victories at Assembly Hall, the Kohl Center and now, Williams Arena. In that span, Northwestern has surrendered just 55.7 points per game. One team meeting helped a team find its identity.
“Ever since then, it’s been a really different team,” said freshman forward Sanjay Lumpkin.
Added Collins: “We want to make something of this season. We rallied around each other and made a commitment to defense.”
That’s where Northwestern’s first-year coach feels the pressure. Each possession is essential in these grind-it-out games. The Wildcats’ wins have come from steady defensive efforts and late-game heroics.
There have been different leaders in each game. Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb have paced the Wildcats throughout each game, then sophomore guard Tre Demps has served as the closer.
“We’ve played so many close games,” Collins said. “It’s hard for us because we don’t have the offensive firepower to run away from teams. We’re going to play in a lot of close games, and I think our experience in those close games really paid off today. I noticed our guys were really poised. There was a calmness to them, they weren’t jittery.”
Northwestern’s roster is made up of only Bill Carmody’s recruits, players who were positioned to play the Princeton offense. When Collins came in, he scrapped the schemes that had brought Northwestern success toward the end of Carmody’s tenure.
The learning curve was steep. NU finished nonconference play with a 7-6 record including bad losses to Illinois State, North Carolina State and DePaul—three games the Wildcats wish they could have back as their season trends upward.
Stuck in the Big Ten’s basement in January, the Wildcats came together. A trust was formed between players and coach. Along the way, they’ve enjoyed success.
“It feels great, just because of the brotherhood we have with our guys,” Crawford said. “We’re a great team in terms of trusting each other, loving each other and really working together. That’s what makes it the best.”
Collins came to Northwestern after 13 seasons on Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke bench. He won two national championships and two Olympic gold medals. Now, the Chicago-area native is trying to take his hometown school to its elusive first NCAA Tournament berth.
In order to make history in Evanston, Collins wanted a fresh start for his Northwestern program.
“That doesn’t mean it was all bad; there was a lot of good,” Collins said. “There were good players in the program, good coaches. The coach I replaced is the most successful coach in the history of the program, and was a really good coach.
“To me, it’s about building the culture of a program that can be competitive over time. It’s really not about going to one NCAA Tournament; it’s about trying to build a program where we take pride.”
In year one, Collins has Northwestern playing its best basketball in program history. With each possession, key defensive stop and satisfying win, the Wildcats move closer to a winning culture.
Chris Emma covers college football and basketball for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CEmmaScout.