After a 21 point loss to NC State on Wednesday, the feeling surrounding Northwestern basketball was exclusively negative. The players were discouraged. The coach was unhappy. The fans were concerned. The lack of effort from the Wildcats on the defensive end was disconcerting; so Chris Collins challenged his team ahead of Saturday’s bout with Western Michigan. Their authoritative response? To hold the Broncos to just 35 points with a defensive effort of which even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was in the building, would’ve been proud.
Following the game, Collins lauded his team’s effort. “[I’m] really proud of my guys today,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, that was our best game. That was our best game of the year.”
It certainly wasn’t Northwestern’s best game shooting-wise, as the Wildcats once again struggled from the field, shooting under 33 percent. But one thing that Collins has preached ever since arriving in Evanston is that defense comes first – and furthermore, that a huge part of defense is pure effort. And one thing on display Saturday was that an inspired defensive performance can always remedy a poor offensive one. Given that frame of mind, the tenth game of Northwestern’s season was in fact its best.
“Our defense was tremendous,” Collins said, and the statistics back up that claim. Western Michigan shot under 25 percent from the field, and a torrid 1-15 from beyond the arc. Almost every shot was contested. Even when WMU scored, it was usually through contact or with a hand in a shooter’s face.
Northwestern was extremely effective in limiting penetration. They played with active hands and active feet, and with an ideal amount of physicality. An additional byproduct of this activity and physicality was an increased turnover rate (the Wildcats forced 15 on Saturday). Collins also mentioned Northwestern’s ability to switch on the perimeter as a big contributing factor. Said Collins, “I thought we took them out of some stuff, being able to switch a lot, because when you have four guys that are all the same size and they’re all athletic, you can take teams out of a lot of their continuity. I thought that really bothered them.”
Another big difference was the result of a change in the starting lineup. Collins replaced Dave Sobolewski and Alex Olah with James Montgomery III (who he has, at times, labeled as his best perimeter defender) and Nikola Cerina, effectively opting for defense over offense. The results were clear for all to see. Montgomery played just nine minutes, but Collins hailed his impact extensively.
“I really thought James just pressuring the ball to start the game, it just set a tone,” Collins said. “Whoever’s on the ball, that guy sets the tone for his whole team. He’s the head of the monster. If you’re behind a guy that’s just busting his tail, and he’s diving and he’s pressuring the ball, it’s going to give you energy, and that’s what I thought he did.”
The other massive improvement was in the two areas in which Collins feels his team has been weakest so far this season: transition defense and rebounding. Against NC State, the Wildcats conceded 15 second chance points and 13 fast break points to the Wolfpack. Back in November, against Illinois State, they allowed 10 second chance points and 17 fast break points. On Saturday, those numbers were reduced to 4 and 2 respectively.
“At halftime we had given up no offensive rebounds, which for us was a huge milestone. We did a great job on the glass,” Collins said. He also asserted his satisfaction with his team’s transition defense.
Collins’, and in general any coach’s goal for his team on the defensive end is to limit opponents’ clear looks at the rim. There are many ways to do that. One is to constrain them solely to a half court offense by limiting fast breaks; another is cleaning up every missed shot with a strong effort on the defensive glass; yet another is simply keeping pressure on the ball, halting penetration, and playing great help defense.
On Saturday, Northwestern did all three of those things. “Look, if you hold a team at this level to 35 points, you’re playing great defense," Collins said. That’s indisputable. What remains to be seen though is whether or not this display can be replicated. Every time Northwestern has done something this season to trigger optimism, the very next game it has reverted to mediocrity. However, if Saturday is in fact a sign of things to come, Northwestern may just be able to hang in the Big Ten.