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A familiar result portends an uphill climb to Big Ten respectability for Northwestern

As Northwestern’s season nosedives, structural issues with Chris Collins’ offense continue to appear

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Ill. — Vic Law sat in the Welsh-Ryan Arena media room, looking dejected. His head slumped as he leaned on his right arm, trying to answer questions about a disappointing loss. Another disappointing loss.

He spoke quietly. It looked like he didn’t want to open his mouth. After all, it’s not like there’s a ton to say after a 59-56 loss to Rutgers, NU’s fifth-straight setback. Law entered this season with all-Big Ten aspirations, and he sought a bounce-back senior campaign after Northwestern lost its final seven games in 2017-2018.

Well, that hasn’t happened.

Northwestern is struggling, and sits at No. 13 in the Big Ten standings with a conference record of 3-10. The Wildcats are on track for their worst conference record of the Chris Collins era.

Against a freshmen-laden Rutgers team, Northwestern, a team that starts three seniors, look like the inexperienced group. The Wildcats are a veteran team playing like they’re still learning how to win. Early in the Collins era, when young players like Law and Bryant McIntosh were getting their feet under them, these results might’ve been fine. Not with Law and Dererk Pardon, two of the conference’s better players.

During the Rutgers game, a quote from the best player in college basketball felt relevant, oddly enough.

After a 23-point second half comeback win against Louisville, Duke phenom Zion Williamson said this about what his head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, told the Blue Devil players during the game: “He said he don’t coach losers, only coach winners.”

Chris Collins probably heard Krzyzewski give a similar line dozens of times during his four years as a player at Duke. It’s a quote that represents a culture with winning seared into its DNA. A program that doesn’t accept losing habits. A basketball team that consistently plays with fighting spirit.

Right now, Northwestern couldn’t be further from away from that reality. In key moments, the Wildcats have repeatedly folded. On the court, you rarely see joy and energy. When you do, you never see it for 40 full minutes.

Northwestern was picked to finish 12th in the Big Ten, so it’s not as if the results this season are totally out of left field. The conference is drastically improved from a year ago; look no further than the Scarlet Knights. Northwestern has pulled out some close games (Illinois, DePaul), and lost others (Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Rutgers), which isn’t not too far off from the number you’d expect. The lack of depth stemming from past recruiting misses has hamstrung a team that isn’t talented enough to win consistently in its league. So, with these things in mind, maybe you’ll say Northwestern is about where it should be. That doesn’t make it acceptable.

Northwestern is a team that produces performances less than the sum of its parts, and its offense feels like it has reverted into the dark ages of NU basketball. According to KenPom, Northwestern’s adjusted offensive rating and effective field goal percentage have both dipped to the lowest they’ve been since Collins’s first season at the helm, when Bryant McIntosh wasn’t even on the team yet.

For a team that routinely has one of the most expansive playbooks in the conference, something isn’t adding up offensively. Northwestern has more sets than almost every team in the conference, yet the Wildcats struggle to score year after year. The offenses have taken different forms, whether it be the McIntosh-orchestrated pick-and-roll-centric approach or the motion and cutting that define this season’s team, but, on the whole, they haven’t been very effective.

In my estimation, there are two ways for offense to do what is has never done in the Collins era — become potent. Northwestern either has to recruit different kinds of players who play specific roles, or it has to fundamentally change its coaching philosophy. Either way, that falls on the coaches. The players deserve some blame too, but, when the issues been going on for five-plus years, it’s more than just making shots.

After Wednesday’s loss to Rutgers, Northwestern now has a losing streak of five games or more in every year of the Chris Collins era except 2016-2017, when the team made the NCAA Tournament. At the time, the Tournament run appeared to be a watershed moment of growth for the program. Recruiting and perception-wise, it probably was. Really, though, the Tournament team was a sign of a good team, not a good program. Good programs lose talent and replace it. Northwestern hasn’t proven it can do that yet.

And so, as Northwestern continues on with another forgettable season, things feel bleak.

“You really only have two choices,” Collins said Wednesday. “You can lay down on the season, or you can dig down and fight.”

Regardless of which choice Northwestern makes, I’m not sure it’ll tell us something we don’t already know.