Northwestern is college basketball’s biggest surprise

EVANSTON, ILLINOIS - FEBRUARY 15: Boo Buie #0 of the Northwestern Wildcats celebrates with teammates after hitting a game-winning layup against the Indiana Hoosiers at Welsh-Ryan Arena on February 15, 2023 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Only a few months ago, Chris Collins faced a perilous future.

The Northwestern men’s basketball coach appeared to be entering a win-or-bust season without sufficient firepower to save his job.

Collins had already exhausted much of the goodwill he earned in 2017 when he guided long-struggling Northwestern to its lone NCAA tournament appearance in program history. His teams staggered to a 26-71 Big Ten record over the next five years despite the university refurbishing its aging arena and infusing his program with unprecedented resources.

Only days after Collins’ fifth straight losing season last March, Northwestern’s first-year athletic director hinted that he was running out of patience. Derrick Gragg issued a statement noting his “disappointment” and tasking Collins with “making necessary changes to build towards success in the 2022-23 campaign.”

To outsiders, Northwestern had little hope of ascending in the Big Ten or contending for an NCAA tournament bid, especially after the team’s top two big men transferred to Duke and North Carolina last spring. A preseason poll of 28 Big Ten beat writers projected the Wildcats to finish 13th in the league, ahead of only Nebraska.

To Collins, Northwestern’s outlook wasn’t so dire. Even with Pete Nance and Ryan Young transferring out, the Wildcats returned six of their top eight players from a 2021-22 team that lost 11 times by seven or fewer points. Collins fancied his experienced backcourt, as well as the camaraderie and purpose his team displayed over the offseason.

“We felt we had a great core of guys who were really invested in the program,” Collins told Yahoo Sports. “When everyone picked us to finish at the bottom of the league, I did think we had a chance to be better than people thought.”

Northwestern hasn’t just exceeded expectations like Collins predicted. The Wildcats (20-7, 11-5) might be this college basketball season’s most unlikely success story. Less than three weeks before Selection Sunday, they have climbed to second place in the Big Ten and have entered the AP Top 25 for the first time this season at No. 21.

Merely in the mix for an at-large NCAA tournament bid when February began, Northwestern has since reeled off five straight victories and rocketed to a projected No. 6 seed. On Feb. 12, the Wildcats waylaid Purdue to record their first win in program history over college basketball’s top-ranked team. They then validated that with takedowns of Indiana and Iowa, both of whom were favored by oddsmakers to defeat Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Northwestern now has seven Quadrant 1 wins this season, tied for the sixth most in the nation as of Monday morning. These days, the Wildcats display the confidence and swagger of a team that believes it can beat anybody.

“More people need to wake up,” Northwestern guard Boo Buie told reporters last Wednesday after the Indiana win. “This isn’t luck. It can’t be luck at this point.”

Northwestern squanders momentum

The story of Northwestern’s improbable resurgence this season begins with one of Collins’ lingering regrets. He blames himself for squandering the chance to build momentum after the Wildcats made the NCAA tournament six years ago.

In 2017, Northwestern began the season 19th in the AP Top 25. Four starters returned from the 24-win team that edged Vanderbilt in the opening round of the previous NCAA tournament and put a scare into heavily favored Gonzaga two nights later.

Of course, the sequel turned out nowhere near as dazzling as the original. Northwestern dropped its final seven games and finished 15-17, an outcome that Collins attributes to more than just playing home games off campus during Welsh-Ryan Arena renovations.

“I thought we lost our edge a little bit,” Collins said. “We weren’t as sharp with our practice habits and coming together as a team.

“There was so much praise and so much satisfaction from getting to that first tournament and winning a game. For all of those guys, that was the reason they came here. Then all of a sudden we did it. I think all of us assumed the train was going to keep moving. The hard lesson we learned was even though a team might have a lot of the same pieces, you’ve got to start every season new and develop that new edge, that new camaraderie.”

EVANSTON, ILLINOIS - FEBRUARY 12: Head coach Chris Collins of the Northwestern Wildcats reacts against the Purdue Boilermakers during the second half at Welsh-Ryan Arena on February 12, 2023 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Chris Collins entered the season on the hot seat at Northwestern. Now, the Wildcats are on the cusp of an NCAA tournament bid. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

When the last remnants of the NCAA tournament team moved on after a 19-loss 2018-19 season, Collins recognized it was time to push the reset button and commit to a youth movement. Buie, Nance, Young, Chase Audige and Robbie Beran all gained experience the next two seasons as Northwestern ate a bushel of losses while giving its core of underclassmen the opportunity to play through mistakes.

Collins envisioned the turning point coming last season, which is why Northwestern’s many blown leads and single-digit losses stung so hard. It made it difficult to evaluate whether the close calls were cause for optimism or alarm.

The rebuild became a more daunting challenge for Collins when his top two big men both departed last spring.

It didn’t surprise Collins when Nance left. The 6-foot-11 stretch forward tried to turn pro after averaging 14.6 points and 6.5 rebounds as a senior. When feedback from NBA teams indicated that he wouldn’t be drafted, Nance sought a fresh start at North Carolina.

Young bolting for Duke caught Collins more by surprise. The 6-foot-10 center also was on pace to graduate, but Collins hoped he’d return because with Nance departing, Young “had an opportunity to step into a very prominent role.”

“The goal and the dream was to have everyone together to see this thing through, but that’s just not the reality of college basketball now,” Collins said. “Ryan got his degree from Northwestern and had an opportunity to go to Duke. How could I say, ‘Hey man, don’t do that?’”

When Collins and Gragg met after the Big Ten tournament last March, the conversation was more productive than the athletic director’s ensuing warning shot of a statement suggested. Collins said they discussed what had gone wrong the previous season and laid out a plan for what to change to fix it.

“I know a lot of people made it an NCAA tournament or bust type of deal,” Collins said. “That was never discussed. It was never laid out to me that we had to go to the tournament. It was more like, ‘How can we get this thing right? What do we need to do roster-wise, coaching staff-wise, the way we play? How can we get this back on track?'”

Fixing the flaws

In the wake of his meeting with Cragg, Collins says he re-examined what went wrong down the stretch of all those tight losses the previous season. What he realized was that Northwestern had to get tougher and more cohesive at the defensive end of the floor because the Wildcats were never going to overwhelm Big Ten opponents with scoring talent.

“In the last four minutes of a game, we could never get the stops we needed with the game on the line,” Collins said. “We could never get that big rebound or make that big toughness play in order to pull out a win.”

Hoping to re-establish Northwestern’s defensive identity, Collins adjusted his offseason workouts to emphasize basic defensive principles. The Wildcats spent hours working on defending ball screens, sliding their feet or rotating and recovering.

Collins also juggled his coaching staff, creating room to bring aboard former Southern Illinois coach and Bruce Weber disciple Chris Lowery. The fiery Lowery helped devise and install an aggressive scheme in which the Wildcats attack ball screens and hide their lack of frontcourt depth by sending an extra defender at opposing big men in the low post.

When Collins rewatched Northwestern’s two late-November games at the Cancun Challenge, he observed signs of progress. The Wildcats limited Atlantic Sun-leading Liberty to 23 second-half points in a decisive win. Then they locked up 13th-ranked Auburn in a frustrating yet encouraging 43-42 loss.

“Even though we lost, we realized we were pretty good,” Collins said. “I think that trip to Mexico gave us all confidence that maybe we had a chance to do something special this year.”

Eventually, an elite defense started producing results. Northwestern was more physical than Michigan State at the Breslin Center in early December. Just a few weeks later, the Wildcats toppled Illinois and Indiana in a span of four days.

Opponents are generating few easy shots at the rim or in the low post against Northwestern’s scrambling, trapping defense. The Wildcats’ steal percentage (12.1) and block percentage (13.9) are both among the top 30 in the nation. The double teams can leave Northwestern vulnerable to surrendering open 3-point looks, but the Wildcats have often been able to make up for that with their effort closing out or rotating.

While Northwestern’s defense is the backbone of its success, the backcourt of Buie and Audige has carried the offense. Buie has averaged nearly 20 points per game in Big Ten play while also expertly taking care of the ball and creating scoring opportunities for teammates. Audige has averaged a career-best 14.8 points per game while also emerging as one of the Big Ten’s best individual defenders.

Earlier this month, a Northwestern Daily reporter asked Audige if he thought he and Buie were the best backcourt in the Big Ten.

A dead-serious Audige replied, “I think we’re the best backcourt in the country.”

Audige would surely get some push-back from folks in Waco, Lawrence or Houston, but his overflowing confidence is a key ingredient in Northwestern’s recipe for success. How else would the Wildcats be toppling blue bloods and No. 1 teams? Or winning 11 conference games for the first time since 1931?

At the start of the season, Collins was near the top of every list of coaches on the hot seat. Now, he’s one of 15 finalists for the Naismith national coach of the year award.

Saving his job has to be satisfying for Collins, but he insists that has never been his motivation. He simply wanted to reward the upperclassmen who have stuck with him and make sure that Northwestern’s 2017 NCAA tournament appearance was no one-hit wonder.

“No one was more frustrated with losing than I was and nobody was more critical of myself than I was, but I never viewed this season as being about me,” Collins said. “I just knew this was an important year because this was kind of the culmination of the growth of this group. We had to get over the hump.”