A lot has happened since 1939. World War II. The Vietnam War. The invention of the lava lamp. Steve Jobs was born. Steve Jobs died. Gene Keady’s combover. You get the point.
Maybe the most important thing to have happened, though, was the creation of the NCAA Tournament that very year. In that 76-year span, there’s only one power conference team that has never received a bid to the Big Dance: the Northwestern Wildcats.
In the spring of 2013, after 13 seasons of mind-numbingly boring and unexciting basketball under Bill Carmody, who led the Wildcats to four early NIT exits in his tenure, the Northwestern Athletic Department finally did something right. Mike Krzyzewski’s long-time Associate Head Coach Chris Collins, who had tremendous recruiting ties in the Midwest, was swept off the market just two weeks after the regular season ended and hired as the 24th head coach of the Wildcats men’s basketball program.
Since then, Collins has been better than advertised. In 2014, with Carmody’s meh roster, he revamped the Big Ten’s least efficient defense into the conference’s third, and nation’s 14th, most efficient defense. In 2015, he turned the nation’s 309th ranked offense (96.3 points per 100 possessions) into the nation’s 94th ranked offense (105.7 points per 100 possessions). Prior to the 2015 season, he signed Northwestern’s first ever ESPN Top-100 recruit in Victor Law (now a sophomore) and followed that up with yet another Top-100 recruit in Aaron Falzon, an incoming freshman from the east coast who passed up the likes of UConn, Ohio State and Notre Dame to make an instant impact for Collins at the four this season.
Next step: getting Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. In only his third season, Collins has put together potentially the best roster to ever step foot in Welsh-Ryan Arena, something that Wildcat fans should probably be able to say every year going forward under his watch.
With the defense falling back down to earth last season after the miraculous turnaround in 2014 mentioned above, Collins will need to find a way to balance out his team on both sides of the floor. The Wildcats ranked last in conference play last season at getting to the foul line and creating turnovers, and they were nearly the worst team in the country at converting three point attempts (38.8%). With offensively-challenged Dave Sobolewski now gone, the keys to the Evanston kingdom have officially been handed over to Big Ten All-Freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh, a key building block for the future of this program who has put on nearly 20 pounds of muscle this offseason and can help the team improve in all three categories.
At 6-foot-3, the baby-faced assassin, paired with 6-foot-7 Vic Law, has the length to wreak defensive havoc on the perimeter by increasing deflections and creating turnovers. And after ranking second on the team to senior Tre Demps in both free throw attempts and three-point field goal attempts, expect McIntosh to increase his utilization and efficiency in both categories given the full-time starting spot. The kid was fifth in the Big Ten in free throw percentage as a freshman.
Outside of McIntosh, Collins has the fourth-most experienced major-conference team this season, by way of possession-minutes, per ESPN’s John Gasaway. Big man Alex Olah enters his senior season as Northwestern’s anchor, both offensively and defensively. He led the team in Poss%, OR% , DR% and Blk% last season, and he has improved every year; three-point sniper Tre Demps ranked sixth in conference-only 3P% at 43.0% and put together five 20-point games; Vic Law’s length, athleticism and rebounding prowess gives Northwestern their first true NBA prospect since Evan Eschmeyer; Scottie Lindsey, another athletic forward and a solid Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year candidate, will fill in for Law at the three again if he can’t overcome last season’s struggles; and junior redshirt Sanjay Lumpkin will look to improve upon his role defensively – a guy who can guard the wing and still has the size and length to man up in the post.
Although Northwestern’s lackluster nonconference schedule may hurt their RPI when it’s all said and done, they’ll have a chance to prove themselves in late November against UNC on a neutral court before taking on a somewhat weak Big Ten schedule that has them facing Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State only once while playing Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota twice.
On paper, this Northwestern roster could easily be top-8 or 9 in the Big Ten and, for a conference likely to get that many NCAA tournament bids, the stars seem to be aligning in Evanston.
Can Chris Collins finally end the drought? Only time will tell. As far as the list of things that have happened since 1939 goes, “the Northwestern Wildcats earned a NCAA tournament bid” could very well be added come March.
Three weeks ago, there was nothing. There were exchanges before the Illinois game that went as followed: “What are they going to lose by? 10? 20?” “They might win one Big Ten game. No way it’s tonight.”I, for one, picked Northwestern to lose by 14. It seemed like a no-brainer. They struggled mightily in non-conference play against sub-par opponents and were facing a then Top 25 team in Illinois. Sure enough, what ended up happening on that cold, bitter Sunday night, would be the start of what has turned into one of the feel good stories of the year, not just in the Big Ten, but in Men’s Division I College Basketball.
The Wildcats stole their fourth upset on Wednesday, stunning Wisconsin 65-56 in Madison. Drew Crawford had his best game of the season. He finally found his shot and went 10-for-15 from the field, and 3-for-5 from long distance, resulting in the first 30-point performance of any Wildcat this season. At the conclusion of the game, the bench erupted in joy, chest bumps and most importantly, triumph. It’s starting to become a routine, as these Cats have now won 4 of the last 6, two against Top 25 teams, and one at perhaps the most hostile road environment in the Big Ten, Assembly Hall in Bloomington.
Northwestern lacks talent, so much so that their own coach admits they can’t score. They’re bad at twos, threes, free throws – practically everything. But challengers be warned: they play harder than you. They slide for every loose ball and get most of them. They slow you down until you physically and mentally can’t take it anymore.
Sound easy to stop? Ask the four Big Ten programs that are now victims of Chris Collins’ genius. This team officially deserves your attention. Most importantly, they deserve your respect.
There are no words to describe the last three weeks. Before that, to stay positive, fans just talked about Vic Law and Bryant McIntosh. This year was an afterthought until the Wildcats proved otherwise. It looked like the worst team in the Big Ten, and maybe in Northwestern history.
On Wednesday night, the game was theirs from the start. It has never been like that before. They played tough, in-your-face defense, and held Wisconsin to their worst shooting night of the season, an abysmal 26.3%. On the other side of the ball, they exhausted the shot clock and prayed their shots went in. To the surprise of many, those shots fell 47.9% of the time, making for their sweetest win of the season and Northwestern’s first in Madison since 1996.
It wasn’t just that one win, though. It wasn’t just the previous three. Together, this was validation of a season only mid-way through conference play. They’ll lose many more, as hard as they try, but they’ll make it all mean something.
It’s a valediction for Crawford, a pronouncement of Collins’ brilliance and a reminder that sound fundamentals can often finish first in the end. There’s a good chance Northwestern loses this string of success by falling at Minnesota and at Michigan State in two of its next three games, but it simply won’t matter – their statement has been made. This NU team plays their hearts out. They put it on the line. They’re fighters.
In what was once considered a rebuilding season, they found a whole lot to root for.
This Sunday will mark another chapter of the University of Illinois and Northwestern Rivalry. After the Wildcats went into Champaign this past November and stole a game from the Fighting Illini’s abysmal football program, U of I fans are excited to get revenge on what will likely be a double digit affair or, at the very least, a W in the ever-important Big Ten schedule.
The two teams could not come into the game on a more different path. The Fighting Illini have showed potential early in the season with a near win over #15 Oregon and an upset victory over then #23 Missouri. In fact, with a 2-0 start coming into this week, the Illini earned a #23 ranking, their first Top 25 appearance of the season. Northwestern, on the other hand, hasn’t just lost – they’ve lost often… and ugly. First, it was devastating losses to in-state rivals Illinois St. and DePaul. Then, it was absolute thrashings in their first three Big Ten games to Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. Some Wildcat fans (Yes, there are a few out there), are already starting to look ahead to their February 8th home meeting with Nebraska, just to make sure they don’t put up the dreaded goose-egg this year in conference play. But, that begs the question: can a more meaningful game like this put the fire in them to surprise a few folks, and actually win one at Welsh-Ryan arena? Let’s examine.
Northwestern came into the year with its typical hype: “Will this be the year they finally get over the hump and make it to the NCAA Tournament?” All signs had presumably been pointed in the right direction. A new, fresh, cerebral coach in Chris Collins was coming home; combo Guard Jershon Cobb was coming off his one-year suspension; and Drew Crawford was coming back for one last hurrah after shoulder surgery. Nevertheless, what those optimistic Wildcat fans failed to realize was that the “NU Era” was going to be a work in progress. Collins can only do so much with what he was given. Sure, Crawford, Cobb, and even Center Alex Olah (23 points on 10-14 shooting against Wisconsin) have shown promise when healthy, but together it’s simply not enough. Former Coach Bill Carmody surrounded Collins with mediocre 2-star recruits that were able to hide their lack of talent through the Princeton offense.
Unfortunately that is no longer the case. Collins fast-paced offense has, naturally, resulted in more shots being attempted, but in Northwestern’s case, that means more shots missed. The Wildcats rank 281st in three-point percentage (31% – down from 159th last season) and 265th nationally in effective field goal percentage (47%), which pegs them dead last in the Big Ten in both categories. To really drive this point home, take Junior Captain Dave Sobolewski. A former All Big-Ten Freshman, who shot 34% from three last year, now has his shooting woes exposed, as Sobolewski’s knocking down an appalling 17% – yes, 17% – of his threes, which is completely inexcusable and unacceptable for a Big Ten starting point guard. If Wildcat fans truly want to see some good basketball, they’ll be best served taking a drive over to Saint Rita High School and watching Top 70 Recruit Victor Law lace it up, as he’ll be joining the Wildcat program next fall. With Law and another 4-star recruit Brian McIntosh coming in, the future is bright for Northwestern. For now, they’ll just have to wait – something they’ve certainly grown accustomed to over the years.
Meanwhile, Illinois who, in the second year of the John Groce era, has continued to impress. Groce came in last year to an experienced team that could have easily made his first-year coaching the orange and blue a living nightmare. Instead, they listened to him from the start, rallied around his contagious passion and energy, and found themselves just minutes away from a Sweet 16 berth. After losing key seniors such as DJ Richardson, Brandon Paul, and Tyler Griffey, many thought this would be a rebuilding year before the Illini were experienced enough to contend with Groce’s first official recruiting class. Instead, with key transfers Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey, along with another year of experience and development for Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand, the Illini have put together a legitimate squad that finds themselves right in the middle of the pack of the top-heavy Big Ten. There is no disputing that Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin are the elite of the group, but I think you’ll find that, as this team continues to grow together, the sky is the limit for them, and there’s no reason they can’t contend with Iowa and Michigan for that fourth spot. After an absolute embarrassment on Wednesday night at the hands of Wisconsin, you better believe Coach Groce will have his Illini as prepared as ever for a bounce back win and, most importantly, their first Big Ten victory outside of State Farm Center.
At the end of the day it would be a great story to see Coach Collins win his first Big Ten game in Evanston, but the fact remains: the Cats will continue to struggle. The Illini are going to shoot… and shoot often. Rice and Abrams will have big games, and the Illini will prevail in the first chapter of the Groce vs. Collins era.
Final score: Illini-72 Northwestern-58