EVANSTON — After a disappointing start, Northwestern basketball is starting from scratch.
The first seven games of 2017-18 haven’t seen a veteran Big Ten team hold serve. Instead, Northwestern has had two vastly different backbreaking losses, "dead silent" plane rides back to Chicago, emotional heart-to-hearts and unfamiliar two-a-days. Something just wasn't working. The team had to reset. Forget the noise, forget the preseason ranking — this team has put itself in danger of blowing it all by December 31st. Chris Collins had to do something.
The posters of individual players that gazed over the team's practice court at Blomquist Recreation Center are gone.
The team's Northwestern-emblazoned practice jerseys, shorts and even socks have been replaced by empty-looking purple t-shirts bearing just a small white Under Armour logo and plain black shorts.
Northwestern players wearing no NU logos, just plain purple shirts. Gavin Skelly says players won't wear practice jerseys until they feel they've earned them. pic.twitter.com/XHe1mauFDu— Caleb Friedman (@calebfriedman) November 30, 2017
The already barebones locker room, as one player described it, was cleaned out of the players' NU apparel by coaches and managers, though it has since been returned to what it had been before.
There were even internal discussions about taking down the massive Chicago skyline and Northwestern logo that covers the back wall of the facility, though that would have been too big an ordeal to complete.
That's what losing will do with a Mike Krzyzewski-disciple in charge. To be sure, the players got their practice jerseys back, but have chosen not to wear them until they get things right.
The commitment to get better by a 4-3 Northwestern team is clearer than ever. The sense of urgency that fills the team's modest practice facility looms large.
This is the continuation of a restart that began after Northwestern's crushing, and maybe even shocking, 36-point shellacking at the hands of Texas Tech in Mohegan Sun, a game in which neither the offense nor the defense looked remotely competent.
"You have to go back to square one, even if you have a lot of guys back," Chris Collins said. "I think [the coaches] just kind of assumed, with seven veterans back, four returning starters, that those same habits, that same togetherness, that same cohesiveness was gonna be there, because it's been there. We didn't take the time, with our drills, with our habits day-to-day, to relearn those things. And we're doing it now."
Collins said that he feels he and the coaching staff didn't approach the preseason as well as they could've, noting that going back to the basics of team defense before the season, as opposed to now, would've behooved his players in these early-season contests.
The team had Monday off after a Sunday loss to Texas Tech, before having two-a-day practices Tuesday and Wednesday of that week. Those practices — which included sessions starting in the early afternoon and then again in the evening — weren't the most physically taxing, but more mental, one player told Inside NU.
"We had to understand who we were at the moment," Bryant McIntosh said. "We were a team that got beat by 36 on ESPN, who thought we were really good, we were ranked. We had a false sense of reality, we got put in check real quick into our reality and it was time we understood it. And, if we wanted to do something about it, it was time for us to change."
In this way, Collins emulated his former mentor Krzyzewski, who stripped his team of its practice garments and banned his players from the locker room after a slow start to ACC play in 2016-2017.
"When you lose a game like that," Collins said of Texas Tech, "you have to really look in the mirror and look at yourself and see, 'Ok, what are we all doing that is leading to something like that?'"
One of the main problems, he said, was chemistry, which manifested itself on the defensive end of the floor.
"Where you see togetherness the most is on the defensive end of the floor," Collins explained. "Because if one guy doesn't do his job, the help side or in a rotation or having a guy's back or communication, if one guy breaks down then it all breaks down. That's why you saw it early, our defense was just not being connected."
A post-Thanksgiving win over Sacred Heart brought some encouragement in that department, but it was a win against a sub-300 team in KenPom. Not exactly a résumé-builder.
The next game, Georgia Tech, represented an opportunity to make some amends, and pick up a road win against a power conference team.
While NU played better than it had against the Red Raiders, that victory disappeared in the game's waning seconds in brutal, buzzer-beating fashion. Tadric Jackson's last-second layup erased a furious second-half run by Northwestern. Chicago's Big Ten Team left Georgia with another quiet, reflective plane ride.
This time, defense, which had plagued NU since the season began, wasn't the problem. A 5-of-23 three-point shooting display, including what may have been the worst game of Scottie Lindsey's career (no points on 0-of-8 shooting), did the Wildcats in.
There was progress, though losing a game like that is costly for a team's résumé come the end of the season. That's where the team is right now: on the right track, but still searching for valuable wins and trying to rekindle the unity the team had a season ago.
Despite being knocked down, Northwestern has a shot to get up in a big way in its next few games. With Illinois and Purdue coming up, we'll see if the changes, in both practice attire and mindset, bring a different on the court result.
"It's important not to just panic," Bryant McIntosh said. "It's early in the season, but this is the first fight, the first round of a big year in the Big Ten. It's time we kind of wake up and get ourselves going."
"Wolves hunt better when they're hungry," said Gavin Skelly, looking down at his solid purple t-shirt.