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Wildcats Deviate from Defensive Gameplan in Loss

A month ago yesterday, something was supposedly born. As Northwestern triumphantly strode off the Assembly Hall floor, it had apparently found an identity. The Wildcats had reinvented themselves as a defensive-minded team, one that was going to grind out possessions and try to control games on both ends of the floor.

Over the past week, that identity has seemingly fallen apart. That’s not to say Minnesota lit up Welsh-Ryan on Sunday, but over the past few games, something has been different. That passion that was, for three weeks, focused entirely on defense has diminished, and consequentially, Northwestern has regressed. The second half in Columbus was the final straw.

Why has this change occurred?

Look back to Jan. 9. Much has been made of that bus ride back from Iowa, during which something clicked, and Collins decided that an overhaul of the team’s mentality was necessary. But let’s consider the circumstances that merited that change.

First, the feeling around the program was in a pretty bad place. It wasn’t just that Northwestern had lost its first three games under Collins’ in Big Ten play, it was the account the Wildcats gave of themselves. Something had to change.

Second, it personally pained Collins, a coach with a lot of pride, to see his team get plastered in three consecutive games. No matter how much of a talent deficit he was dealing with, he knew that what had transpired over that past week was unacceptable. The distress of 25-plus point losses couldn’t continue.

And third, he realized that his vision of Northwestern basketball – his vision of a Chris Collins-coached Northwestern team – wasn’t going to become reality in 2013/14.

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Collins was hired on the basis of long-term goals, as opposed to on the basis of short-term goals. He has made it clear that he wants to get away from the prototypical, Carmody-influenced Northwestern style, and move towards a more up-tempo, free flowing system. But because of the aforementioned factors, he made the decision to sacrifice, at least temporarily, the implementation of that long-term plan in favor of fixing the situation at hand.

Collins altered his ways to save a season spiraling down hill. And for a seven game stretch, this shift in mentality worked wonderfully. Northwestern pulled off some incomprehensible upsets, and – well, they dodged disaster.

Even after a loss to Nebraska halted the run, the season had long since been saved. And perhaps – maybe, just maybe – with that positive feeling emanating from the program, Collins felt it was time to return to that long-term view; to confront the likes of Michigan State and Ohio State head-on, and to see how much progress had been made.

I’m not suggesting that Collins stopped emphasizing defense. But as he himself said earlier in the season, one of the things that allowed his team to play such inspired defense was the methodical offensive pace.

“We should never rest on defense,” he explained following the win over Illinois. “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.”

Against Ohio State Wednesday, that attitude was absent. Northwestern was getting up and down the court, playing liberally on offense, and in fact, they were doing so successfully. The Wildcats led 25-16 with less than eight minutes remaining in the first half. Then, everything fell apart. The Buckeyes went on a prolonged 40-12 run – if you want to call it that – that left Northwestern resigned to its fourth straight loss.

My suggestion is that in revisiting the long-term view, the Wildcats deviated from what had been so successful for them. And in deviating from that blueprint, NU woefully regressed. The attempt to open up the offense backfired for the exact reasons that Collins used as original reasons for change: the lack of depth, and the need to focus all energy on the defensive end.

But is this necessarily a bad thing?

My other suggestion would be that Collins has already accomplished enough this season. He’s shown that he can get a team to buy in to something. He’s shown that he can win with inferior talent. He’s shown that he is passionately committed to taking this program somewhere.

So with those positive feelings secured, Collins perhaps felt like he had nothing to lose. And with nothing to lose, maybe he thought, ‘why not see if we can take this a step further? Why not revisit that long-term plan, and continue to implement it in these past few months?’

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The past few games have shown that NU isn’t ready to take that next step. But with not much to play for – and anything for which to play, such as fading NIT hopes, dwarfed by Collins’ plans for the future – it was probably worth the try.

In averting disaster, and achieving surprising levels of success, Collins earned the opportunity to use the final portion of this season to look forward to 2014/15 and beyond. And while the results haven’t been, and might not be pretty, it’s all part of a process.

As I wrote in my very first preseason column, “this new era doesn’t hinge on a game or two, nor does it hinge on a single season, and shouldn’t be judged thusly.” And that’s important to keep in perspective as year one of the Collins era nears conclusion.