If Chris Collins is nervous ahead of his first game at the helm of the Northwestern basketball program, he didn’t show it Friday. Instead, he spoke at length about his team’s excitement, both the positives and negatives of it.
A little more than 24 hours before the Wildcats get their season going against Eastern Illinois on Saturday night, the new head coach emphasized the importance of containing that excitement.
“Our guys are excited, we’re all excited,” he said. “Our biggest challenge, any time you have a first game, you don’t want to use all your emotion playing the game before the game’s played. You want to be ready to be at your best when the game starts. I know we’re going to play hard, I just want us to be able to relax a little bit, settle down and play good basketball.”
Collins is no stranger to big games. As an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, he coached in three Final Fours, two national championship games, and 13 NCAA Tournaments. Yet the prospect of his first game as the head honcho has generated a new sense of anticipation, and it’s apparent that this anticipation and excitement has rubbed off on his players.
In fact, Collins thought that his players’ excitement might have been their biggest problem on the offensive end on Wednesday night against Lewis. The Wildcats shot just over 35 percent from the field, and 6 for 20 (30 percent) from beyond the arc, but Collins certainly wasn’t overly concerned.
“I just want to see our guys relax a bit on the offensive end,” he said in an unperturbed tone. “We didn’t shoot the ball well, but when I watched the film, we got a lot of good shots. So it wasn’t about lack of execution, it was more that I think our adrenaline was going, we were a little bit over-excited.”
Collins conveyed an air of confidence in his players that maybe wasn’t present in the minds of many fans who watched Wednesday’s scrimmage, an unconvincing 57-46 victory over a Division II school. He spoke as if he was aware of doubts that had arisen after the unimpressive display, and made sure to affirm that his trust in his players hasn’t wavered.
“We need to slow down a little bit on offense, just allow our offense to work, and trust it, and continue to take good shots,” he said. “My guys will tell you, I’m okay with them shooting the ball. I want them to be confident, I want them taking shots, and I believe when you have that mind frame, you’re going to make them.”
The problem, though, may be getting those aforementioned good shots. Collins said he wasn’t displeased with the flow of the offense, but against stiffer competition, the Wildcats need to be better on that end of the floor. At times on Wednesday, they looked stagnant with the ball.
Collins even somewhat admitted the difficulty, saying “we’re not a team that has guys that are going to be isolated a lot, we’re not going to be running a lot of pick and rolls, that’s just not the strength of this team. Our strength is in our cutting, our slashing, our ability to keep the floor spread."
But for Northwestern to have considerable success this year, that supposed strength will have to become more tangible. Wednesday night, shots didn’t come naturally in the rhythm of the offense. All offenses look and sound good in principle, but game situations are obviously different.
Collins has had a condensed time frame to implement his system. A team accustomed to the Princeton offense has had to switch gears, and while we shouldn’t be too quick to judge the transition, one that surely is not complete, clearly improvement is necessary.
The first chance for improvement is the first real test on Saturday. Looking ahead to that test, Collins stressed that he and his team aren’t taking Eastern Illinois lightly.
“They’re going to be hungry, they’re local guys. I know they’re going to be confident, they’re going to be loose, so we’re going to have to play well to beat them."
In fact, they’re taking nobody lightly. EIU finished last season 11-21 (6-10 in the Ohio Valley Conference), and although they have some size, the Panthers should be one of the easier tasks presented to Collins in year one. But they are no exception.
“There’s no one on our schedule where we’re just going to show up and win, we have to go out there and win the game. We’re going to respect everybody we play, and we know they’re capable of beating us if we don’t play well.”
Lewis was perhaps a rather convenient example of just that. Collins did make it clear that all wins, no matter the means by which they are achieved, are still wins. But Wednesday’s was unofficial. Collins will hope that on Saturday, continued defensive intensity and improved offensive composure will bring him his first ever official one.