Take a glance at the Big Ten standings.
Start at the bottom. You’ll see the predictable cellar dwellers–Penn State and Nebraska–languishing at the conference’s basement. But then you might notice something else. Look above Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio State, three stellar programs with deep, talented squads, and you’ll see a team that would seem to fit at the very lowermost spot in the standings. The program that’s been the hallmark for major college hoops futility, a school that has NEVER made the NCAA Tournament, a team with a court so hideous it makes most small children cry…you know: Northwestern, is 3-4 through seven games in the best conference in America.
To understand the shocking quality of Northwestern’s sudden solidity you need to understand two things. The first is the program’s history. Northwestern’s lack of NCAA berths doesn’t even begin to depict the historical, and more importantly, recent, incompetence of Wildcats basketball. No coach has been able to turn Northwestern into a winner. Rich Falk got them to their first ever NIT bid in 1983. They didn’t make the postseason again until 1994, when a relatively mighty (ya know, 15-14) Cats squad made the NIT. The next three years, Northwestern won all of 19 games.
In 2000, Bill Carmody took over NU, and the guy who had four great years at Princeton was expected to finally lead Chicago’s Big Ten team into the Promised Land of March Madness. Did it happen? Yeah…not so much. The Princeton offense experiment was a decade long failure in Evanston. Sure, it had some moments. Two straight 20 win seasons in 2010 and 2011 had the media thinking any year could be the year. And Carmody got Northwestern to an unprecedented four NITs in 13 years (did I just write that?)! (I believe I did.) Eventually, the Carmody era came to end, with the program still sitting in a place of stubborn opposition to good basketball.
So, exit Carmody, enter thing you need to know #2: the team inherited by new coach Chris Collins–the current team–is far from great. Sure, they’ve got a couple of weapons, including slashing wing Drew Crawford, a talented fifth year senior, and JerShon Cobb, a robust, if streaky, scoring guard. But on the whole, Northwestern’s team is one of modest talent. The Wildcats only won 13 games last year and in the off-season they lost three of their better players: guard Reggie Hearn, guard Alex Marcotullio, and talented forward Jared Swopshire. The cupboard that Collins inherited was fairly bare where it counts: both in skill and in athleticism.
What Collins has done thus far might not be magical. But it’s certainly worth getting exciting about. Northwestern pilfered Chris, the son of former NBA coach Doug Collins, off of Duke’s coaching staff in hopes that he would bring something new. And Collins has brought a steady exuberance and a more fluid, flexible offense to Northwestern. He’s also brought tenacious defense the likes of which hasn’t been seen in Evanston since…well, probably ever.
But let’s go back to the start of the season. Northwestern’s non-conference portion of their early season was rocky and at times brutal. The Cats lost to UCLA by 16 and NC State by 21 in back-to-back games. They lost games to the likes of DePaul and Illinois State. But there were fleeting moments to indicate that Northwestern might compete in conference play. They held Western Michigan to a measly 35 points. They also squeezed out a win over a pesky Brown team. Then Big Ten play started and Northwestern got pounded by Wisconsin. And then Michigan. Next, Iowa threatened to drop triple digits on NU in Iowa City. No biggie. Life in the Big Ten for an under-talented team.
Since January 12th though, something strange has happened. It quite likely won’t last–it’s certainly to some extent an aberration. But it’s something. A reason for hope. Northwestern has won three out of their last four games, starting with their upset win over Illinois on January 12th. They’ve looked more than capable of playing with the big boys. Against Illinois, playing without point guard Dave Sobolewski (still out), Northwestern clogged up Illinois’ offense as if it was a drain. The Illini shot a laughable 28% and, while Northwestern’s offensive issues were on full display, the Cats pulled out a 49-43 win.
Three nights later, NU hosted Michigan State and they came to play again, giving the (currently third ranked) Spartans a devil of a time offensively. MSU won–the national title contenders from East Lansing held Northwestern to just 13 field goals–but the game was no laugher, as Northwestern’s strong defense made MSU squirm at moments. The final was a respectable 54-40.
Then came probably the best win of the year for Northwestern. Playing on the road at Indiana’s storied Assembly Hall, Northwestern stymied a Hoosier team fresh off a win over mighty Wisconsin and took the contest by a final of 54-47. The Cats proceeded to win another game last night, using a late game surge to take Purdue to overtime…and then a second overtime, before emerging victorious by a final of 63-60. Purdue shot just 28%.
The trend in NU’s recent surge is quite obvious: tremendous defense. And the low opponent shooting numbers should partially be attributed to hard luck: Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue all shot well under 30% against the Wildcats–something that doesn’t happen without some bad bounces. The main thing though, is that Northwestern’s effort level defensively is off the charts. Their perimeter defense is staunch. In the paint, sophomore Alex Olah has turned himself, remarkably, into something resembling an enforcer. And Northwestern doesn’t give up ANY easy buckets.
Meanwhile, Northwestern is scoring just enough. Sophomore guard Tre Demps has emerged as a dangerous long range gunner. In the Purdue win, Crawford, Cobb, and Demps all showed the ability to get big buckets late.
Thanks to the recent surge, made possible by out-of-nowhere, elite-level defense, Northwestern sits at 10-10. They’re not going to make the NCAAs this year (barring some events out of Space Jam), but they are competitive. And when Chris Collins gets his pieces in place next year and in future years, that ole’ NU hoops NCAA drought might just be hit by a monsoon. What NU’s doing right now is pretty spectacular. What could be coming soon…well, we’ll just have to wait and see.