Northwestern Basketball: Wildcats, first-year coach exceeding expectations

Northwestern Basketball

Northwestern head coach Chris Collins celebrates his first career Big Ten win against Illinois. (Photo Credit: Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)

No one gave Northwestern a chance this season.

With new head coach Chris Collins inheriting former coach Bill Carmody’s team, many pegged this season as a lost year in between regimes. Add in the fact that redshirt senior guard Drew Crawford was the team’s only true go-to player before the season, and the Wildcats seemed destined to dwell at the bottom of the Big Ten once again.

They followed that script perfectly for the better part of two months, going 7-9 and losing their first three conference games by a total of 76 points. Heading into their matchup against Illinois Jan. 12, it looked like a real possibility that the Wildcats would go winless in the Big Ten for the first time since the 1999-00 season. But they defeated the Fighting Illini, 49-43, setting in motion a 5-2 conference run that currently has them fourth in the Big Ten, 12-11 overall.

Northwestern’s improved play can be attributed to many things, none more important than team unity.

Crawford, who could have transferred to a number of teams bound for the NCAA Tournament this season, has been the glue keeping this rebuilding together. He has proven to be the team’s stalwart, leading Northwestern with 16.3 points per game. Aside from statistics, Crawford provides the team with much needed leadership as one of the team’s only two seniors.

Guard Tre Demps has also asserted himself as a second-option off the bench for the Wildcats. Demps hit three clutch three-pointers against Illinois in the game’s final minutes to propel the team to the win. He followed that performance with some more timely shot-making against India at Assembly Hall, and then at home against Purdue. Demps leads the Big Ten in bench scoring with 10.7 points per game.

Of course, offensive numbers are nice but Crawford and Demps—and even JerShon Cobb— do not get much help from the rest of the team.

The Wildcats do, however, make their living on the defensive side of the ball. Northwestern ranks 2nd in the Big Ten with 63.3 points allowed per game, only behind Ohio State’s 59.3. They also keep their opponents shooting at just about 40 percent.

Even at barely .500, the Wildcats are exceeded expectations. Just not the ones Collins placed on the program in his first year.

Since taking over the head-coaching job last March, Collins has created a new culture surrounding Northwestern basketball. Gone are the days of complacency with being a sub-par program. While this year’s team is giving the Big Ten elites all they can handle, Collins has already secured the best recruiting class in school history. His first signee, Vic Law of St. Rita High School in Chicago, is the 66th ranked player in the class of 2014, according to the ESPN 100.

While an NCAA Tournament berth does not seem likely this season, the Wildcats have a very good chance at finishing above .500 overall.

Not bad for a team rebuilding for the future.