Northwestern blew another double-digit lead on Monday night.
If you’re keeping track, that’s three straight games where leads of 11 points or more have turned into losses. Just two weeks after Chris Collins laughed at people calling this season a disaster, it has unquestionably turned into one.
Having lost to Maryland for the second time in 10 days, the Wildcats are now 6-10 in Big Ten play and have fallen out of the NIT conversation. They’ve been playing without their top two point guards, which certainly hasn’t helped. But at the same time, these repeated second-half collapses raise a question that four months ago I never would’ve thought I’d have to ask
Is Collins the primary culprit for Northwestern’s struggles?
This three-game stretch started with an already-overshadowed-yet-still-incomprehensible choke job against Rutgers a week ago. Northwestern led essentially the entire game and found itself up 56-50 with less than a minute to play. Per Kenpom, the Wildcats had a 98.5 percent chance of winning.
Then Gavin Skelly fouled Corey Sanders while he was shooting a three. Sanders hit all three free throws, Aaron Falzon missed a triple on the other end, and Sanders tied it with a clean look from deep. NU scored the first bucket of overtime, then watched as Rutgers closed the game on an 11-0 run to pick up its 9th Big Ten regular season win in the four years since it joined the conference.
It’s possible the Skelly play was just an incredible brain fart by the senior, but it’s also valid to say that not fouling a shooter in that situation might be something Collins should’ve put more emphasis on both in the moment and in practice throughout the year. Northwestern also had two seniors (Skelly and Scottie Lindsey) inexplicably leave Sanders open on his game-tying three. The Wildcats shot 24 percent after halftime in that loss.
Then, on Saturday, Northwestern somehow managed to one-up itself. If you’ve been living under a rock (got room for one more down there?), NU blew a Big Ten record 27-point lead to Michigan State. The Cats scored 49 points in 20 minutes and then somehow hit just 3 shots on 12 percent shooting after the break. Meanwhile, they gave up open three after open three to the Spartans, as Collins was unable to figure out any way to stop the 24-0 MSU run that lost the game. There were four timeouts in that run, and yet Collins couldn’t draw up a play to prevent his team from missing 17 straight shots. Early in the second half, Kenpom gave NU a 93.1 percent chance to pull the upset.
On Monday, the Wildcats had a comparably shaky 86.1 percent chance of victory a couple minutes into the second half before Maryland took over.
With or without Bryant McIntosh and Jordan Ash, some of the responsibility for failing to close even a single one of those games has to fall on Collins. He’s in charge of making adjustments when things are going poorly, and he hasn’t been able to do that recently.
Collins captured the hearts and loyalty of the fan base last March, and there was little to any criticism when his lengthy contract extension was announced this summer.
But then this season happened. From the first game of the year, something’s been off about this team. Outside of a couple brief stretches of solid play, Northwestern has been shockingly bad on its way to being probably the most disappointing team in the nation. Of course Allstate Arena has been a factor, but ultimately at least some of the blame has to fall on the head coach. His matchup zone defense has worked at times and failed miserably at others. He was out-coached by Josh Pastner in a loss to a bad Georgia Tech team missing its best player. His team has blown an 86 percent or greater win expectancy in three straight.
Collins hasn’t exactly been the most sympathetic figure throughout it all, either. Last season ended with him picking up an understandable yet awfully-timed technical for complaining to the refs, and that tendency hasn’t gone away this year. There was the bizarre “stitches” press conference at Purdue in December, and a number of lesser incidents of griping over calls, most recently the instant meme against MSU. The Johnnie Vassar situation remains an ugly cloud hanging over the coach and his program.
Collins has already accomplished more than any coach in Northwestern basketball history. He can out-recruit Bill Carmody or any other predecessors in his sleep, and the incoming 2018 class offers hope that this will just be a 1-year blip on a continued upwards trajectory.
However, when a season has gone as poorly as this one in the face of grand expectations — expectations he embraced — some criticism of the coach is warranted. No one is calling for his firing, but there’s at least a portion of Northwestern fans whose trust and confidence Collins needs to regain by moving the program forward in the coming years.