Published Monday, February 3, 2014 at 10:44 pm / Updated at 10:47 pm
Barfknecht: Collins ditches style points, has Wildcats on the prowl

If the Big Ten men's basketball tournament started today, Northwestern would get a first-round bye.

Take a moment and let that sink in.

A program that has finished 11th, 7th, 8th, 8th, 10th, 12th, 11th, 9th and 8th the past nine years is alone in fourth place at the halfway point of league play. And the Wildcats (12-11, 5-5) — they host Nebraska on Saturday — are doing it with a first-year head coach.

Chris Collins, former Duke player and assistant, is drawing Big Ten and even national coach of the year chatter for remaking his team in the middle of the season to become a contender.

A month ago, Northwestern's season was swirling toward the drain, and fast.

The Wildcats lost six nonconference games against a modest schedule. One of the better wins was by two points over IUPUI, a team that the University of Nebraska at Omaha just hammered by 28.

The start of Big Ten play provided little hope things would get better. Northwestern opened with losses of 27 points to Wisconsin, 23 points to Michigan and 26 points to Iowa. That dropped the record to 7-9.

Then came the Wildcats' “aha moment.”

“We had a little heart-to-heart meeting after we got back from Iowa City,” Collins told me Monday from Chicago. “A lot of guys talked, not just me. We talked about what we wanted to get out of this season.

“None of us wanted to just fade to black. We wanted to recommit ourselves to things that were necessary for us to be competitive in our league.”

That meant ditching a fast-paced offense to play a slowdown game with limited possessions and a sagging, protect-the-basket defense.

It worked right away. Northwestern ground down Illinois 49-43.

“That game was 'the' moment because not only were we able to win a low-scoring, grind-it-out game,” Collins said, “but it showed our guys that was the blueprint. To be rewarded for playing that way, it gave our guys confidence.”

That's not the way Collins wants to play in the future.

“Ultimately, I want to get up and down and I want to score,” he said. “Everyone would laugh (at our style) because I wasn't that great of a defensive player.”

Yet many rookie coaches are tempted to install a certain system no matter what, so they can say to recruits, “See how we do it?”

Collins said the coaches who influenced him — his father, former NBA coach Doug Collins, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski — see things differently.

“I've always been taught that in coaching, it's not about being stubborn to what you believe is the right way to play,” he said. “It's about how can you coach your team to be most successful.

“The essence of coaching is to take the group you have and to figure out how to win with them.”

Since the change in style, Northwestern is 5-2 and has won three straight Big Ten road games for the first time in 54 years. Wildcat opponents have shot a cumulative 32.5 percent from the field the past six games.

“To become this kind of blue-collar, defensive, hard-nosed, scrappy team is not how I would like to play,” Collins said. “But the bottom line is we all want to win. The guys have really rallied around it.”

Note to coaches and athletic directors everywhere: Take Collins' “essence of coaching” quote and hang it in your locker room. Those are words to remember.

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.



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