With Northwestern opening the season with an exhibition game against Quincy on Thursday night, the college hoops season is upon us. After back-to-back 15-17 seasons, the "new car smell" that head coach Chris Collins has carried with him over the past couple seasons has now worn off. And he'll be the first one to tell you that.
Inside NU sat down with Collins just a couple of days before the start of the season for a wide-ranging Q&A. In part two, coming next week, Collins speaks on the contract extension he signed in the offseason, what he's learned through three years of being a head coach, and the impact of new facilities on Northwestern's brand.
Here, in part one, we discuss Northwestern's revamped roster, how the college game might be different this year due to rule changes, and the non-conference schedule.
Inside NU: This year in particular, have you kind of looked at which group you'll be starting yet?
Chris Collins: I really haven't. I think, realistically, the guard positions are pretty much set. B-Mac [Bryant McIntosh] and Tre [Demps] are going to be out there. And [Alex] Olah will be the starting center. The other two positions, I don't know yet.
I feel like we have a lot of guys that can help in the roles that they bring. Part of putting the team together and figuring out who to start. I mean, one of our best players my first year was Tre, and we brought him off the bench just because I liked that dynamic of bringing his pop off the bench. I don't know if we would do something like that again this year. But I just feel like our depth is a lot better than it's been. The first couple years, we had a nice little core, but if there was any kind of foul trouble, injury, guys not playing well on a given night, there weren't a lot of places to turn. We needed all those guys to be functioning.
I just feel now, having gone through the Spain trip and in practices, the level of our practices are so much more competitive now because there's always two equal teams out there. We really didn't have that, which sometimes you get a false sense because if your starting group is a lot better than your second group, all the sudden you go into games and you're not really being pushed in practice. You get out there and all of the sudden you're playing really good people and you can get knocked back a little bit. I think that's changed a lot, just the competitiveness in practice. Like I tell the guys a lot, I want to be in a position where they're all playing well and to make me make tough decisions. I think three guys, barring anything crazy, are going to be in there. And I think we're still kind of figuring out how to round out the lineup and what kind of rotations to use off the bench.
When you talk about depth, what differences do you envision yourself having to do to kind of work through, in games, when you have ten guys that are looking to play?
There's no question. I really never have done that, being able to go a little deeper into the bench and giving those guys an opportunity to play. I'm excited about the depth at our big position. Alex has kind of just manned that through thick and thin -- tired, not playing well. We just had to ride with him. The addition of Joey has been huge. Not just getting the team better with his talent, but for Alex. And now his production can be even better, keeping him fresh all the time. Now you come in with a guy who's of that quality, you can keep a good player at the spot. In our league, it's huge. There's great bigs in our league. Especially now with the rule changes, there's going to be more fouls. There's a commitment to taking away physical play. We're seeing it even in scrimmages and there's a lot more fouls being called. Having more guys, from that perspective, is good too.
Do you see Vic [Law] playing any minutes at the four?
Maybe a little bit. But I think I'm comfortable with Aaron [Falzon] and Nate [Taphorn] and Gavin [Skelly], a little bit. Vic going there, he can, in a pinch, but then you get real small. I'd rather have Vic with one of those other guys so now you have two six-eight guys at the three-four. Because if you play a smaller four, you need to have a bigger wing with him. So you can't have three little guys and a small four. Then you'd get real small.
I think a lot of people are going to be surprised when they see Gavin playing a wing position in the four-around-one offense. What pushed you to install him as more of a wing player and what skills make him able to do that?
The good thing about it is that he's able bring a little bit different dimension because he's kind of the guy, if we go to a little bit more of a power lineup. He has that physicality. He can make a shot. He's skilled enough. Aaron and Nate are pretty similar with what they bring with their shooting and spacing. They're more wings that are playing that hybrid four position that everybody has. Gavin's kind of that true power forward. When he's in, we're a little bit more physical.
Before playing Alex and Joey, to me, you put Gavin with one of those guys when you want to go to the physical team. It's been a good adjustment for him. Last year, out of necessity, we had to play him as a five because we didn't have the depth at that position. I think it's been good and it's been refreshing to him. We can use him at both spots. That opens up more chances for him to get some more minutes. He's a high-energy guy. He's actually more skilled than what he's shown just because of where he played last year. He's got three-point range. He's a good passer.
Yeah, that was one thing I noticed from watching him. He made some really tremendous passes last year, which was surprising to me when I was looking back at the film and watching some of the games.
Yeah, I like his skill level. He's a bouncy player. How do you find times to get him in there? That's kind of what this non-conference schedule is about. Up until we get to the league, let's see who emerges. I just think we're going to be the kind of team where, other than the two guards, I think the other spots on a night-to-night basis, like I don't know what the minutes are going to be. It's going to be more of who's playing well.
We need Tre and Bryant, there's really no replacements for them. But in terms of the whole front line, I feel like we have a lot of guys who are good enough to help us. It's going to be game-to-game. Vic might have it one night. Scottie [Lindsey], Taphorn, Sanjay [Lumpkin] he's that defensive stopper. What we've been doing this year is utilizing Sanjay as a wing, where he can be that wing defender and a guy who you can't block him out as a wing. He's flying, slashing, he's getting to the glass versus being an under-sized four. We've kind of transitioned him to being a physical wing. We found, in the early season, that's been a good formula for us.
Another aspect about moving Skelly to the four and moving Sanjay back up the wing would be rebounding out of the zone. That was something that was difficult for you guys last year.
Yeah, that was hard.
If you play the zone this year, having Skelly as one of the wings on the zone would really help rebounding-wise.
It's almost like, too, you get bigger. When you have natural fours who are playing five and you have threes who are playing four, you're just smaller. Our league is still a physical league. Now, all of a sudden, you have Sanjay playing as more of a wing guy at six-six, 220. You have Skelly who can play some four at 230, instead of playing five. Now you have two big guys... With Vic being six-eight, Scottie being six-six, Falzon and Taphorn both being six-eight. [Derek] Pardon, van Zegeren, Olah, Skelly. We have big guys. And even B-Mac is not a small point guard. He's six-three, 185. That's on the bigger end of point guards in terms of length and size.
I mean, the only player who's not a "plus" size-wise, is Tre.
Yeah, but he makes up for it with his quickness and strength. We've gotten noticeably bigger.
Is that a mutually exclusive aspect when you compare it with playing an up-tempo style, the kind of style that you came in wanting to play?
We're trying, but still, it's a work in progress. I've noticed it's been good, just the way we've been flowing, just getting some easier baskets. If you're going to play a little bit faster, then you have to sub a little bit more because no matter what, guys are going to pace themselves a little bit if they think they're going to play 35-40 minutes. When you know you're playing four-to-five minutes, you can kind of let it out. Right now, are we going to be at North Carolina's or Michigan State's pace? I'm not ready to say that. But I think we're transitioning more to where I'd like. We are flowing into things, getting into things quicker.
And that's more the way I'd like to play, especially now with the new rules and the shot clock, you're kind of forced to do that. If you walk the ball up -- It's going to be interesting though. Teams are good, coaches are good. People are going to try to slow teams down. That's going to be a big emphasis, forcing that stop sign, making teams use the clock and get the clock against them with containment presses and zones. I think you're going to see more multiple defenses than you've seen.
That's something that, over the past few seasons, you guys have struggled with, against the press. I remember, specifically, the Maryland game last year at Maryland. Has that been an emphasis of yours this offseason? If the defense is focusing on Tre and Bryant in the backcourt, having Vic and other guys being able to bring the ball up.
I think it's huge. We have to have others guys. If they're going to double Bryant, and teams are going to do that to try to take it out of his hands because they know how important he is, that's where Tre, that's where Vic, that's where Scottie, Jordan [Ash], when he's in there, have to step up. I think Alex is more comfortable, as he's older now, being able to flash and just make a pass, not that he's going to be dribbling it. The more experience he's gotten more poised.
I think a lot of what you're talking about, on some of those instances too, is that for us to take the next step, a lot of it is a mindset. Our talent level is in a good spot. Is it the best in our league? No. But it's more competitive than it's been when you line us up. If you walk in the gym now, we look like a Big Ten team with athletes and size. Now, for the good programs, it's the mindset they have of expecting to win. Not in an over-confident way, but just taking the floor and not hoping you're going to win.
I think that Maryland game, at Michigan State, we had about three or four where we out-played them, at Michigan, too. I think part of it was our guys, still, were wondering, ‘Are we supposed to win this game?' That doubt creeps in. Like, ‘I hope we can hang on' versus ‘No, these are games that we're supposed to win.' For me, obviously, I was part of a great program. There were teams that we had at Duke that weren't as talented, but because we had that name on across our chest, we ended up winning a lot more games because the team and kids believed they were supposed to win because they played for Duke. You see that in our league with Wisconsin, Michigan State, some of the more established programs. That's the mindset. Part of that is, you've got to win. And that goes hand-in-hand.
I think in terms of late-game stuff, look at all the close games, not just with us but with our league in general. Maryland had a great year last year but I think I read a stat where they were 9-1 in games that were five points or fewer. We had that six-game stretch last year where we go 0-6. I think if you add them all up, I think it was 21, 22 points. Maryland, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State at home, Illinois at home, they're all one-point games, one-possession games on the last possession and we lose them all. And you finish 6-12. What if you win three of those? I'm not saying you go 6-0, but what if you win three? Now, you're 9-9. Is that a different season than 6-12? That's the fine line from having a good year. You've got to win close games.
We talked at Big Ten Media Day about the non-conference schedule and about how a lot of people are saying that this is not an NCAA Tournament-quality schedule. Your response to that was, in terms of so-called quality wins, we can get those in conference. Was that kind of thinking, where you're able to flip a few of those one-possession games?
When you do the schedule, you look at what kind of team you have. Obviously, we want to go to the Tournament. I mean, that's a goal every year. From where we're at, I think our program's in good shape. It's on a positive trajectory and you have to keep the arrow moving up. Look, we have to go out and some of those games where people are saying those are awful games they may turn out [well], I don't know. When you looked at our schedule last year, you probably looked at the Central Michigan game and said, ‘Well, they won six games the year before.' Well guess what. They won 27 games last year. We don't know yet.
But what I wanted to do was that we have a good home slate in terms of being at home. We need to learn how to win. The way we scheduled was, we have four games against high-major opponents that, to me, are going to be real benchmark games in the non-league. We play North Carolina, which some people have as number one in the country. Then we play Missouri or Kansas State in Kansas City, which is going to be a road game because it's going to be all their fans there. We play at Virginia Tech, which is not an easy place to play in the Challenge. They're a lot better because Buzz [Williams] has totally revamped the entire roster, they have a bunch of transfers sitting out and a bunch of young kids coming in. Then there's the DePaul game. That's four high-major games and the other nine are home games that we need to try to win.
Nothing's a sure thing, but if you play well, then you put yourself in a position going into the league. And you look at our schedule in the league, we're going to have a lot of chances to get wins. The bottom line is if you want to go the Tournament, you've got to be at or above .500 in the league. If you have nine, 10, 11 league wins, you're going to beat some good teams, just because everybody's good.
Now, going forward, you advance your non-conference schedule if you feel you're equipped for that. That's the plan. We can't just get ahead of ourselves. In year one, we had a very difficult non-league. It was good, we played those games but I thought we came into the league and we had gotten beat down a little bit. We played at Stanford, we played at NC State, an Illinois State that was really good and we had that stretch where it was tough. You know what, it was good to play those teams but we weren't really ready. We didn't have the team that was equipped to play them. Now, my goal going forward in scheduling is, again, to play a game in the United Center like it's a yearly thing. We're going to keep our schedule with DePaul. The Big East and Big Ten have a challenge now that we're not in this year but we are next year. So we'll have an ACC game, a Big East game, now, all of the sudden, [it's not bad]. Little by little, you're building the program. I'm okay if people [want to disagree with the schedule]. That's what people do. They look at things. But we felt like for the team we had and where we're trying to go, we felt like this was the best schedule for our program moving forward.
Check back early next week for part two, in which Collins discusses facility improvements, his contract extension, and more off-the-court topics. Here's a sneak peek, when asked about facilities:
"You have Nicolet here, and the [football program is] leaving [for its on-campus facility]. So, what do we do with that? To me, that's got to be some improvement for basketball. I think everybody is on board with that."