Sanjay Lumpkin flexed his muscles in triumph. Tre Demps and JerShon Cobb embraced in exaltation. At the final horn, the five players on the court raced back towards their bench, overrun with joy.
And it’s these players to whom coach Chris Collins will give all the credit for his first Big Ten win. “It’s about them,” he said after the game. “I’m really proud of them… I really don’t want this to be about me because I wasn’t the guy out there; they were.”
But while his players do deserve a ton of credit for their intensity and execution, this win really was about Collins.
When Collins arrived at Northwestern, he came with a pedigree. There was no doubting his knowledge of basketball and his ability to teach it; there was no doubting his recruiting capabilities; there was no doubting his dedication to the job. But the one question pertained to his ability to be the head man – to mold a group of players into a unit, and to implement a system and put together game plans conducive to winning.
Roughly halfway into his first season, he had struggled to answer that final question with any assurance. But on Sunday night, he went a long way to doing just that.
Before the game, Collins assessed the situation, and recognized the obvious – that on an individual level, his team couldn’t measure up to Illinois. This isn’t a stunning revelation by any means; in fact, in the past, Collins has implied that his offense must make up for the talent deficit that Northwestern is dealing with.
But on Sunday, the difference was that he finally addressed that situation, and the method by which he did so was brilliant. Collins devised a game plan to dumb the game down. He made it black and white. He wanted to do everything possible to play the game under control. And for 38 or 39 minutes, his team executed ever so well.
Collins’ philosophy was this: “We should never rest on defense,” he explained following the win. “If we have to take a break, or a breath, let’s do it on the offensive end. Let’s take our time, let’s get our wind, let’s make sure we’re settled, let’s run a good set.”
And his players adhered to that plan. Every time a Northwestern player pulled down a defensive rebound, or even when the Wildcats forced a turnover, Collins would throw his hands up in the air. Often times, he would even step out onto the court, imploring his players to get the ball in the hands of Cobb or Demps, and to remain calm.
The slow pace carried over to the Wildcats’ mentality. Without the frantic, end-to-end sequences that had been unkind to Northwestern throughout this season, players were able to clear their heads after every play, and literally play the game possession-by-possession – which is a cliché, but on Sunday, it was truly in effect.
The plan manifested itself on both ends of the floor. On offense, there was more movement – both player movement and ball movement – than ever before under Collins. There were two clear stages of each possession. The first 10 seconds of the shot clock were spent getting everything set and under control. The next 15-20 were for the most part spent running concise, well-scripted plays. And the Wildcats rarely deviated from that system.
But the emphasis, as it’s always been, was on defense. “I knew it was going to be an intense game,” Collins said. “I knew we were going to have to expend a lot of energy defensively.” And with the slow pace, Northwestern was able to maintain complete focus on the defensive end for almost the whole game. Illinois’ 43 points speak for themselves.
This was the first time that Collins has put together a cut-and-dry scheme that was clearly discernible for all to see. And his specificity and simplicity – his breaking down of the game into two phases, and his demand of exhaustive focus and execution in both of them – essentially won Northwestern this game.
And chances are, this isn’t the last time we see these ideas come into play. “I think based upon who we’re playing, we might have to do that even more,” Collins said.
One of the reasons that Northwestern had success under Bill Carmody with inferior talent was an offensive system that masked that inferiority. And while what Collins did Sunday is unrelated to the Princeton offense, it’s a similar idea.
To win games, Collins is prepared to minimize the effects of athleticism and individual ability, and maximize the effects of coaching and schemes. And if his players comply with that theory and execute Collins’ schemes, they might not have as torrid a time in the Big Ten as we all thought they might.