EVANSTON, Ill. — On the plane back from Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday night, Chris Collins contemplated change. He didn’t know what the change would be, but he was certain change was imminent.
Hours earlier, the North Carolina State Wolfpack handled Northwestern by 21 points, Northwestern’s third-straight loss by double digits.
Through his first nine games as a head coach, Collins was 4-5 and his frustration began to boil over. Early in the second half, Collins was issued his first technical foul as a head coach as he took exception to the lack of a foul call on a Drew Crawford drive.
Crawford was the only starter to make more than one field goal against NC State.
As the team arrived back in Evanston and began practice on Thursday, Collins made the choice to reevaluate his team.
"What I challenged the team the last couple days was [that] they need to fight like Drew fights," Collins said. "He’s the senior. He has the sense of urgency. He doesn’t get to do this again. For him, it’s not about the long-term future of our program. We all owe it to him to fight everyday to try to win each and every game. That’s what I’m going to do for him. I challenged the guys and I said, ‘Look, we’ve got two days of practice. The only thing I know is that Drew is going to start.’"
Along with Crawford, JerShon Cobb and Sanjay Lumpkin earned back their starting spots. But the changes Collins pondered on the ride back to Chicago manifested themselves in the final two starting spots.
Seniors Nikola Cerina and James Montgomery III rounded out the lineup.
"And pretty much after a couple days, I made the decision about last night or yesterday before we had our scouting meeting—the day before the game you go through the lineups and the matchups—that’s when I told the guys that’s what we were going to do," Collins said after Northwestern’s 51-35 win over Western Michigan on Saturday.
Born in Topola Oplenac, Serbia, Cerina began his collegiate career at TCU, where he started 38 games in two seasons. Following the 2010-2011 season, Cerina transferred to Northwestern.
Montgomery’s journey from a practice player for Northwestern’s women’s team as a freshman to making the team as a walk-on the following year to being put on scholarship before this season has been well documented.
Neither Montgomery nor Cerina had ever started a game for Northwestern.
Sophomore Alex Olah and junior Dave Sobolewski—the two players left out of Northwestern’s starting lineup—started a combined 112 out of 114 games in their careers.
"When things aren’t working," Collins said, "you can’t just sit there and watch it continue to not work. You’ve got to find solutions. After our last couple games, I felt like we needed some energy in the lineup."
Despite playing just a combined 21 minutes and scoring no points on just one shot, Cerina and Montgomery, according to Collins, did their jobs.
Montgomery especially, Collins said, brought a ton of energy to the floor.
"The one guy who really hadn’t had a chance yet this year to show what he could do was James," Collins said. "My instincts told me to give him a chance. I wanted him to guard the point guard. I wanted him to set the tone with his defense. That guy was all over the court, man. He didn’t score a basket and he might have been the most important part of us winning. He dove on the floor about three or four times for loose balls. He pressured the ball handler and set the tone for our whole defense."
Although Collins didn’t want to make excuses for his team’s play, he did say that his team was weary after playing seven games in 18 days.
"We’ve had a really tough stretch," he said. "We’ve had to go to the west coast twice. Nobody’s played a schedule where you’ve had to go to the west coast twice, you’ve had to play at Stanford, Missouri, UCLA back-to-back nights. We had at UIC. We’re playing every third day and our guys are tired. They are. They’re a little tired but they didn’t show it today. I wanted them to fight for 40 minutes."
Moving forward Collins says it would be hard for him to change the starting lineup if the team continues to perform as they did against Western Michigan.
"It’s hard to not go with [them] again," Collins said. "We played our best game. It’s never like I’m going to go with someone in the long run, every day I’m going to do what’s necessary for us to get better. We’re trying to set a tone for our program. I’m in it for the long haul and we’re trying to set a tone. And the tone is: we fight every game. We had a couple games, and in particular on Wednesday, I didn’t feel like we fought. I’ll live with the results if we fight. We can shoot poorly or whatever, but I didn’t feel like we fought like we needed to Wednesday. My instincts told me I needed to shake it up. And it was nothing against anybody, nothing against the two guys that didn’t start, I just felt we needed an infusion of something else. James and Niko did that for us from an energy perspective."
Northwestern (5-5) plays next against Mississippi Valley State on Dec. 16 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.