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Humble Collins leads Northwestern to surprising start in the Big Ten

There's something special about Chris Collins.

And, in a word, it's humility.

As a 39-year-old first-time head coach, Collins doesn't skip any steps. He swears by the process of building from the ground up. He showcased it while recruiting this summer as he grabbed five major players, three of whom have ties to Chicago.

But early on in the season, it seemed as though the humility Collins seemed to show, didn't translate to the court. He tried to impose himself on his team through an effort to speed up the tempo on offense. Lacking the overall skill set to play an effective up-tempo style, Collins and his team struggled throughout non-conference play.

Following a blowout loss to North Carolina State--the team's third in a row--Northwestern had far more questions than answers.

"Right now, Northwestern’s coaching staff needs to make a decision as to what is more important: giving this current team the best chance to win with a modified game plan or installing the 'culture' that Collins always talks about for the future." -- from North Carolina State 69, Northwestern 48: Rapid Reaction on Dec. 4, 2013

But then something changed for Collins and Northwestern. He stopped force-feeding an unnatural tempo down his team's throat and began to focus on the area where skill set matters least: effort.

"That’s the best defense I’ve seen here in a long time," Michigan State's Tom Izzo said following his team's 54-40 win over Northwestern on Jan. 15. "They really checked. Give Chris credit, I think he’s got his guys to play hard and that’s the one thing that can give him a lot of wins in his career… I just thought they played as hard as anybody we’ve played."

Through seven Big Ten games, Northwestern has won three with defense and timely shooting. Even though his players may say they've always trusted in Collins, he solidified that trust by out-coaching Illinois' John Groce, Indiana's Tom Crean and Purdue's Matt Painter in three of the team's last four games.

Collins' humility can stem from a single meeting he had last spring with Drew Crawford. With a smile on his face, Collins always says that Crawford was his biggest recruit.

"More that anything, one of my main goals--and I’ve said this all along--was I wanted Drew to have a special senior season," Collins said about Crawford after Northwestern's double-overtime win over Purdue on Jan. 22. "He’s done a lot for this school, a lot for this program. There’s no better guy in the world. He’s classy. He’s been a great representative of everything that I want our program to be about moving forward. For him to believe in me the way he did, someone who’s never coached a game, when everybody in America wanted him to transfer to their school, for him to take a chance with me and to play this year, I’ll forever be indebted to him. I’ll always have his back."

That relationship works two ways as Crawford says he has a "great" relationship with Collins and that the two talk every day.

"Coach Collins is the best," Crawford said.

Collins has also been able to put his players in positions where they are most likely to succeed.

Take Tre Demps, for example.

The sophomore guard continues to come off the bench, which is right where he wants to be.

"Since day one he told me that I was going to be a main guy," Demps said. "When somebody tells you that, all you want to do is go harder for them. He’s had my back, probably, like no other coach I’ve ever played for."

But establishing those ties with your players is only half the battle for Collins. The other half is being able to get results on the court.

Although Northwestern has won three out of four games, the team's offense continues to fall to new lows. Following Northwestern's win over Purdue, KenPom ranks the team's adjusted defensive efficiency as 18th best in the country while the adjusted offensive efficiency comes in at 324th.

While Collins takes pretty much all of the blame for the offensive struggles, some of it has become unfairly cast upon him.

Northwestern has run good offensive sets, but inconsistent shooting has played a major role in holding the offense back.

"They lost us a couple times during the game," Painter said. "We just had breakdowns. They just simply missed shots. They were open. It was a matter of time… They had a lot of looks throughout the game that they simply just missed. We were very fortunate that was the case."

During Northwestern's 63-60 win over Purdue, Collins called a lot of similar sets where one player would set an off-ball screen for another before receiving a screen. This "screening the screener" action resulted in a bunch of open looks for Northwestern.

Sets like these give Northwestern opportunities to score, but converting these open looks has given the team fits this season.

According to Synergy, Northwestern scores .982 points per possession on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers. That rate puts them in the 32nd percent tile in the country.

But Collins has realized that his team will struggle to capitalize on the open looks he draws up on the sidelines. And, by all accounts, he's okay with that and has even embraced it.

It seems as though he likes the challenge this team poses and he's not afraid to talk about it.

He loves how hard his players play for him and for each other and is thankful for their effort. Thankful because, frankly, their effort and hustle cover up some of Collins' coaching flaws.

But just 20 games into his head coaching career and riding a two-game win streak, Collins' humility reappears.

"You never know it all as a coach," Collins said. "If I’m someone that thinks I know it all, then I’m a real fool. Like, as long as I coach, I can always learn more and the best way you learn is through experience. We’ve been through a lot of big games, we’ve had a lot of close games. I’m learning daily.

"I think the guys know that I have their back and that I’m in it with them. Our staff is just trying to put them in the position to be successful. I think that what I’ve learned more than anything is just, as a young coach, you never know what’s going to be thrown at you. We’ve had injuries through the year, we’ve had different teams. We’ve had our failures. We’ve learned how to keep our spirit up and keep fighting and keep trying to help our guys get better."

And although the learning curve may be steep, it seems as though Collins has begun to understand the x's and o's of being a college head coach along with the personality side of the job.

"I think coaching is your ability to be successful with the hand you’re dealt," Collins said. "I think, sometimes, you can be too stubborn. My personality is to run and shoot and score and get up and down. But that’s not going to be a formula that’s going to be good for this group. So at the end of the day, my job as a coach is to put our guys in a position to be successful. To me, that’s the essence of what coaching is and that’s what I’m trying to do.

"Am I making mistakes? Heck yeah. And I’m going to make a lot more."

Sure, these players may not have been his guys back in November, but they sure are now.

And Collins wouldn't want it any other way.