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Five takeaways from Chris Collins’ preseason press conference

The head coach struck an upbeat tone about his team’s talent and versatility as rookies become seasoned veterans.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern head men’s basketball coach Chris Collins met with the media Thursday for the first time this offseason. After two dismal seasons in which the Wildcats have won a combined seven conference games, NU now faces a most unpredictable season as they try to turn experience into victories. Here are five takeaways from the availability:

Returning to campus was crucial for team chemistry

Collins said it was great to have “some sense of normalcy” when Northwestern allowed the basketball team to resume activities on campus this summer. Some guys didn’t have great access to gyms and courts at home, making it that much more helpful to have access to campus facilities. Though NU has ten scholarship players, he said that with Anthony Gaines (medical redshirt) and Chase Audige (transfer) finally being able to play, along with the addition of freshmen Ty Berry and Matt Nicholson, it’s like adding four new players to what he called NU’s returning core six.

Northwestern needs to be strong on defense

Collins’ strong suit at NU has been his teams’ defenses, but that was hardly the case last year. While acknowledging the need to play more up tempo and get to the basket offensively, he stressed the need to improve on defense.

“In our tenure here, [defense] is one of the things we have been really good at,” he said. The defense must return to form this year if Northwestern hopes to show improvement in an incredibly deep and talented Big Ten. The ‘Cats ranked just 267th nationally in defensive efficiency in 2019.

Closing games is a point of emphasis

It’s no secret that Northwestern failed to put games away in the second half, letting many leads agonizingly slip away. Collins said it’s about putting themselves in a position to close games and the narrative from last year might be different if they won seven conference contests instead of three. With the added emphasis on conditioning this offseason, maybe that will help flip some of those losses.

“What I tell guys is ‘don’t worry about being a starter, but try and be a finisher, try and be a closer.”

With lots of youth, the future is bright for the ‘Cats

Collins said it’s exciting not having a senior on this team (with the NCAA granting everyone an extra year of eligibility) as the ‘Cats look to climb out of the conference barrel. The Wildcats’ 2021 recruiting class is likely the best in program history, with marquee recruit Casey Simmons heading up the group.

“Now, you have ten guys who can all be back a year from this year and you add on paper what might be as good a class as we have ever had. So I think the excitement and optimism is really there about where we can be this year and where we are headed over the next couple of years with this group of guys.”

It’s tough to get an actual read on where this team is at

Collins can praise as much as he wants about what he’s seen in practice, but he admits it’s tough to truly get a grip on where this team is without the typical preseason measuring sticks. Normally at this point they’d have had a closed scrimmage against another Power Five team and an exhibition. Instead, they’re left without a schedule about two weeks before the start of the season, and the first game will tell Collins a lot about his team.