After a 68-44 loss to Michigan State at home last year, Northwestern head coach Chris Collins walked into his postgame press conference dumbfounded. It was his team's 10th loss in a row, and Collins's well of answers had run dry. "I don't know," Collins said when asked what the necessary changes were. "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."
Eleven-and-a-half months later, the feeling is eerily similar. Collins's team just suffered its second straight 30-plus-point loss, fourth in a row overall, and sixth of its last eight. Surely there's something Collins and his players can do to engineer a turnaround, but nobody's quite sure what that potential change is.
Last season, with a matchup with Iowa looming, Collins and his staff basically sat down and said, 'screw it, we're not really sure what needs to change either, but we're going to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.' Here's assistant coach Brian James on the coaches' meeting after that 10th loss:
"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."
The Wildcats then came out and beat Iowa. They went on to win four straight, and five of their next six. The changes made weren't ones Collins necessarily wanted to make, but what he wanted to do wasn't working, so he was forced to make them.
Now, heading into another matchup with Iowa, albeit a far better Hawkeyes team, Collins is faced with a similar quandary. Northwestern must stop the bleeding before the season spirals out of control, even if that means Collins has to go to something that's a complete departure from his baseline basketball philosophy. It's up to him and his coaching staff to figure out what that is.
On one hand, there are a lot of intangible reasons to think Northwestern might compete with Iowa on Sunday. The No. 3 Hawkeyes are coming off a hard-fought loss at Maryland. Iowa put everything into that game, and with only two full days of rest, the long travel distance — Iowa to Maryland is one of the longest road trips in the conference — is not insignificant.
The Hawkeyes have also had a tendency to play down to opponents, and specifically Northwestern, in recent years. The Wildcats upset 6-seeded Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament in Chris Collins' first season. Then, last year, the Wildcats snapped their aforementioned skid with an overtime win at home.
On the other hand, there are many ways in which this year's matchup is different than last year's. First of all, the game is in Iowa City. Second of all, Iowa is one of the best teams in the country. Prior to the loss at Maryland, the Hawkeyes had won nine in a row. They started 7-0 in Big Ten play, and have already swept Michigan State and Purdue. They're still the No. 2 team in the country per KenPom, and they have one of the nation's most unique and effective offenses.
Northwestern, which will be at a major talent disadvantage, will have trouble matching up with the variety of Iowa's offensive weapons. Despite the recent ineptitude of Northwestern's defense, the Wildcats won't be able to play the Hawkeyes man-to-man. Thus, Northwestern's chance in this game basically boils down to a few possibilities:
1. Northwestern plays its zone, and Iowa doesn't attack it
Last year, the Iowa game was the first in which Northwestern went exclusively to a 2-3 zone, and Iowa played as if a 2-3 zone offense was some alien concept. The Hawkeyes' ball movement was poor, and they seemed afraid to go into the teeth of the zone. They shot 32 percent on two-point field goals, and the majority of their offense was Jarrod Uthoff's heroics. It was enough to keep the game close and force Doug Collins, Chris's father, to end up in a glass case of emotion:
The narrative surrounding the "Chameleon" defense is that it would constantly evolve to prevent opponents from beating it with scouting and an effective gameplan. Theoretically, there would be no way to prepare for it, because the defense a team thought it was preparing for wouldn't be the one it would see on the court. But Indiana and Michigan State — especially Indiana — scoffed at that notion. Collins and Northwestern will have to come up with a new wrinkle to prevent Iowa from doing to the zone exactly what the Hoosiers and Spartans did.
2. Uthoff stays in a funk
Jarrod Uthoff has been one of the players of the season in college basketball, but came up small against Maryland. The second-ranked player in KenPom's Player of the Year rankings shot just 2 for 10 against the Terrapins, and 0 for 3 from beyond the arc. Uthoff can be a streaky player. It's not just his shooting that fluctuates to either extreme. He'll have periods of aggressiveness and confidence, and others where he displays a complete lack of either. In a December game against Iowa State, Uthoff scored 30 points in the first half, but then went ice cold in the second half and scored just 2. If he's in the Iowa-State-second-half type of mood, Northwestern has a chance.
3. Iowa is a half-step slow on defense
We'll have more on the offensive issues next week, but if Iowa is a tad sluggish defensively, Northwestern does have players who can hit a few shots. If the Hawkeyes sleep on Aaron Falzon, he can make them pay. If they play McIntosh poorly on pick-and-rolls, he can make them pay. The issue is that the Wildcats haven't been able to get the same quality of shot in conference play that they got in nonconference play. If Iowa is a half-step slow on rotations, or not diligent and focused in its attempts to contain McIntosh and others, Northwestern's players could be looking at shots that feel a tad more like they felt in December.
If Iowa is on top of its game, Northwestern doesn't stand much of a chance Sunday. The Hawkeyes have too many matchup nightmares for Northwestern on offense, and NU simply isn't talented enough to outscore Iowa. If the Hawkeyes, worn down from the battle with Maryland, have a classic letdown performance, Northwestern can at least be competitive, and might even be able to make a run at an upset.