Over the next two weeks, beginning Monday, March 23, we'll be holding an extended Inside NU roundtable to rehash and analyze Northwestern men's basketball's 2014/15 season. We'll pose one question every day -- some general, some more specific; some looking back, some looking ahead -- and a group of our writers will respond. Additionally, over the coming days, we'll have separate articles breaking down some of the topics in more depth.
To conclude week one of our Season in Review, we looked at two issues that, depending on your perspective, plague Northwestern: offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers. Today, we look at the head honcho, Chris Collins:
After two seasons, how would you evaluate Chris Collins as a game coach? That includes game-specific preparation and in-game coaching.
Ben Goren: This is kind of a two-part question that requires a two part answer. Game preparation and in-game coaching are two very different things. I think Chris Collins actually prepares for games phenomenally well. I love the way he set the team up to handle Michigan in Ann Arbor. Collins decided to let LeVert get his 20, let Walton get 15, but made sure that Zak Irvin was not going to score. Irvin only hit one field goal, and Northwestern could have (and probably should have) beaten Michigan, when Michigan was still decent, on the road. Michigan State game one was also a great gameplan game, as Northwestern held Sparty to 3-11 shooting from deep, and most of those shots were actually contested. Chris Collins between games is a very good coach.
I am not as big of a fan of his in-game adjustments. There were a bunch of times where the choice of rotations were super headscratching. I'm fairly certain it was against Michigan State volume two (the one where Northwestern went approximately an hour without hitting a field goal) where Collins tried pairing Gavin Skelly and Alex Olah together. That would have been fine had not Michigan State been engulfed in flames from the outside. It was a lineup designed to stop penetration against a team that was just popping off threes. I didn't get it. The fact that it took Northwestern so long to go from man to zone should give some people pause. The fact that Nate Taphorn at times got forgotten on the bench is weird, and yes I do understand that he struggled rotating in the zone. I don't think Chris Collins has cost NU any games, don't get me wrong, but sometimes his subs looked more like hitting the panic button rather than a sub that made tactical sense. Collins is still in only his second year as a head coach, so I'm not losing my mind yet. Hopefully next year we see improvement from him. I'll give him a B-. If he comes to my office hours, he can bump that to a solid B.
Kevin Dukovic: Judging from what other Big Ten coaches said all season, Collins is the best basketball coach of all time. From Tom Izzo gushing about Collins' defensive philosophy to Tom Crean calling Collins "one of the best coaches around," the praise seemed endless. But don't let compliments from the conference's flatter-infused coaching fraternity fool you. Collins has his coaching flaws, none of which were on display more than in Northwestern's two worst losses of the season: the blowouts against Wisconsin and Michigan State.
For the most part Collins is serviceable in game prep. But sometimes he's plagued by stubbornness. For example, against Wisconsin he knew he was overmatched, so he decided to leave the three point line open and focus his team's defensive efforts more on stopping Frank Kaminsky down low. That's not a bad strategy. The problem was that the Badgers were unusually hot from three and couldn't miss all contest. Collins, however, stuck to his plan all game. The Wildcats continued to leave searing shooters wide open and Wisconsin kept making them pay. And in the Michigan State rout, the fact that Bryn Forbes, one of the best three point shooters in the Big Ten, was left wide open on four out of five straight possessions suggests Collins' crew is prone to either bad scouting or bad in-game adjustment.
I'll also add that Collins isn't the best play designer. Great coaches draw up a couple plays a game to get some easy baskets. Collins rarely did that last season. Or if he did they rarely worked. When NU needed a bucket Collins just let Tre Demps go "iso." That got a little old. It would have been nice to see him be more inventive and draw up some more successful set plays out of timeouts like assistant Brian James did against Michigan.
Remember that Collins just finished his second season as a head coach though. He's a solid recruiter and his players love him because he's so passionate and authentic. He made improvements from year one to year two (the offense was much more creative in 2014-2015) and I expect him to continue to progress moving forward. While Collins has some kinks to work out, NU fans should not be concerned with his coaching ability.
Henry Bushnell: I think it's pretty clear Collins is still learning on the job. And I think he'd tell you the same thing. Every once in a while he'll make a nice in-game adjustment, or come up with an effective gameplan, but he's not yet at the point where he's constantly thinking a step ahead of his opponent. That's the point at which coaches become good.
I also think it's pretty clear that Collins has an intelligent basketball mind. He couldn't have learned from a better mentor, and his knowledge of the game is incredibly developed for a second year head coach. But what he is struggling with and learning to manage is how to tailor his personal, pre-set philosophy to the players he has at his disposal. One of the most evident things from an outsider's perspective is that Collins has a specific way he wants to play, but it often takes him a bit of time, both in preparing for games and adjusting within games, to realize ways in which he can deviate from that philosophy successfully.
As I said though, Collins is still growing and that's important. It's also important that he's growing with his players. Because he came in as a first-time head coach, and has evolved and will evolve, his players are witnessing that evolution, and I think could be becoming smarter players because of it. I'm not worried about Collins as a coach at all. I just think he, like his players, is still in that growth phase.