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A late night meeting, a zone, rap music and Northwestern's stunning turnaround

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How Chris Collins and his staff altered the course of Northwestern's season.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

It was 1:30 a.m., and Welsh-Ryan Arena was silent. Maybe a few still lingered—an arena employee here, a security guard there—but the storm had subsided. Six hours earlier, a basketball game was being played. Six hours earlier, students bounced, fans chatted, players competed, coaches shouted. But now… silence. The court? Empty. The bleachers? Empty. The basketball offices?

Not empty.

Chris Collins sat there. So did Brian James. So did Armon Gates and the rest of the staff. Their heads, just as their players’ heads had been a few hours earlier, were down. They were in search of answers.

Empty W-R
-Photo via Nick Brilowski on Twitter

"It was a long night," James says. "I remember that we were a little bit beside ourselves, a little bit perplexed, a little taken aback."

Gates doesn’t even know what time they left the building. "It’s all a blur," he says.

Earlier that night, Northwestern had lost to Michigan State. It was the team’s 10th defeat in a row, and it was the worst of the 10. Chris Collins had shaken his head and spoken of disappointment at his press conference. "For the first time tonight," Collins said, "I felt like I saw some guys that looked a little defeated."

And Collins took that personally. It was his responsibility, he said, to get his team to fight, to get them to play with energy. "I will be better," he asserted.

But what would change?

"I don’t know," he said matter-of-factly. "I don’t have the answer. I’ve got to get with my staff, I’ve got to listen to my instincts. We’ve got to figure out something."

So as the stragglers called it a night, as the players’ and coaches’ families trickled out into the frigid Evanston air, a new part of the night for Collins and his staff was just beginning.

This was nothing out of the ordinary. The coaches convene as a staff after every game to rehash and critique that night’s performance. But this meeting was different. Heads were down, and attitudes bordered on bewilderment.

James recalls the mood in the room. "It was not good," he says. "It was not good. First of all, we had to pick each other up. We had to keep it where we ourselves were positive."

James quote

Then they got down to business. They set out to devise a plan. They were determined to find something—anything—to revive the season. To revive this team that looked, for all intents and purposes, done.

And, well… they made changes.

"We changed everything that we had done for three months," James says. "We changed the way we do practice. We changed the things that we did during practice. We changed our preparation as a coaching staff. We changed some of the things that we do before a game. Whatever we were doing, it wasn’t working for 10 games. It might be those things that will work next year. But for this time, we wanted to change everything."

On the court, of course, there was one big change. That wasn’t necessarily the night that the zone was born. Northwestern’s coaches had been discussing the idea of making the switch for a while. But it was the night the decision was made. It was the tipping point.

"That was when we said, you know what, we’re going to do it," James says.

The 2-3 zone has been crucial. But it was about more than just one big concrete change. It was about a mentality. Collins knew his players "were tinkering on being done," as he would later say. "I knew we were on the edge of losing them."

So Collins and his staff adopted a new approach. They wanted the players to just relax. Of course, they still wanted and needed them to work, and perhaps work more and harder than they had been before. But they also wanted to lighten the mood and get them to play loosely.

"I’ve never been a coach where we’ve played music during the beginning part of practice. And I’ve coached 38 years. If some of the coaches that I’ve worked with knew that I was doing that, they would probably tar and feather me." -Northwestern Assistant Coach Brian James

The first step? Hip-hop music. During practice.

It perhaps wasn’t the first thing that came to the mind of Collins, who says he prefers "old-school R&B." It certainly wasn’t James’ idea.

"I’ve never been a coach where we’ve played music during the beginning part of practice," James says. "And I’ve coached 38 years. If some of the coaches that I’ve worked with knew that I was doing that, they would probably tar and feather me."

But it’s working. And that’s all that matters.

The music itself might not actually have much of an effect. It might seem relatively insignificant. But when you ask the coaches about the changes, it’s the first thing to be brought up. It’s representative of a new aura, of a new attitude. It’s the symbol of that reenergizing that Collins knew his team needed.

And even if they don’t understand it, Collins and James recognize the music’s importance. "In today’s age, it’s a good thing, it makes our guys relax," James says. "They’re still working as hard, but they've got smiles on their faces."

Gates loves it. "It gets you going," he says animatedly, lifting his chest.

Gates says the in-practice music is also representative of one of Collins’ greatest assets as a coach. While he trusts his own instincts, he also values the wisdom of crowds. In that meeting, Collins consulted his assistants, and together, they all worked hard to come up with a solution.

They also needed the players to buy in though. And that wasn’t easy after putting in so much effort without anything to show for it. That's why Collins deflects a decent amount of the praise.

"We talked about a fresh approach, starting clean," Collins says. "And to their credit, they bought in. We can say all this stuff, but unless those guys believe and buy in to what you’re saying, it’s not going to happen. So it’s a testament to what those kids did. They said, ‘you know what, you’re right, let’s have a great month.’ To see them come out and win four straight games has been really fun for me to watch and makes me really proud."

Eventually, the goal for Collins and the program is to make this type of turnaround unnecessary. Eventually, if future seasons follow a similar path, we’ll be focusing more on the 10 straight losses than on the late night meetings, rap music and four straight wins.

But this is the second season in a row in which Collins has shown the ability to take a team flirting with collapse and rejuvenate it. Last year, he did it on the bus ride home from Iowa, and the Wildcats subsequently won five of seven. This year, he did it in the office in the wee hours of the morning and over the next few days after Michigan State, and his team has won four straight.

That's pretty darn impressive.