It’s difficult to name a coach that has had a better 2022-23 season than Chris Collins, a sentiment even the biggest ‘Cats fans couldn’t have imagined a year ago.
On paper, the matchup between projected first rounder and five-star Jalen Hood-Schifino and former three-star recruit Boo Buie should’ve given the Hoosiers a clear edge. Yet, on Wednesday night, the ‘Cats proved once again that winning in the Big Ten isn’t something that can be done on paper, as Boo Buie was the best player on the court for the second consecutive game. These performances put the country on notice of the seemingly inexplicable season the ‘Cats are having, and they were led by Naismith Coach of the Year finalist, Chris Collins.
Coming into the 2021-22 season, the ‘Cats had relatively high expectations that they failed to meet, as the 15-16 (7-13 B1G) team finished 10th in the conference. The Pete Nance-led unit had a season of disappointment, as shortly after, he and his front court pairing, Ryan Young, headed to the ACC via the transfer portal to join two Final Four teams. These teams are, in all likelihood, going to be lower seeds than the ‘Cats come Selection Sunday. That is, if they are able to go dancing at all.
So what happened? How did the ‘Cats lose so much and find themselves second in the Big Ten in mid-February? Well, the simple answer is that Collins’ defense has taken an astronomical jump from a year ago, but the reasoning behind this is a bit more complicated.
After bringing in Chris Lowery as an assistant coach in the offseason, Collins’ team started trapping the post on defense heavily in conference play (still somewhat doing so in the non-conference), regardless of whether they were playing 7-foot-4 Zach Edey or a much less menacing Steven Crowl. Even against Rutgers, which runs fewer sets through its center than teams like Indiana or Purdue, the ‘Cats hard trapped Cliff Omoruyi in the post every time he touched it, causing the Scarlet Knights’ big man to score 10 less than his season average.
This post-trapping strategy is one that is easier said than done at the division one level, with it’s non-trapping defenders having to quickly rotate over and briefly defend four-on-three. However, the ‘Cats’ ability to not foul in these traps and read opposing bigs has allowed the team to have one of the best defenses in the conference despite having only one elite on- ball defender in Chase Audige (excluding sophomore Julian Roper, who has missed much time this season due to injury).
Take Buie, an unexceptional on-ball defender whose size often hurts him, but a player who is one of the quickest in the Big Ten. This strategy allows him and his fellow guards to temporarily play cornerback while the trap is occurring, as he can utilize his speed to grab steals and get out into transition. With bigger guards such as Brooks Barnhizer or Audige often alongside him, the defense can cause miscues to even the most talented of bigs (evident in their last games against Trayce Jackson-Davis, where the star had four turnovers). This strategy can be risky, with slight rotation lapses resulting in uncontested layups, but it has allowed the ‘Cats to compete and beat teams with more individual talent than them.
It doesn’t seem fair to equate Northwestern’s defensive jump to the No. 26 team in the nation in defensive efficiency (according to KenPom) as entirely their head coach’s doing, but in his 10th year, Collins’ self awareness has been arguably his biggest asset. Coming from a Duke program that, as a player and assistant coach, had a much different caliber of recruits (with Collins himself being an All-American and Mr. Basketball in Illinois coming out of high school), Collins has had to adjust to coaching a school that has less prominent recruits than many of the teams he faces, finding ways to make up for this discrepancy.
Whether it is defending without fouling despite their aggressive defensive system, not turning over the basketball or taking the misses with the makes from Northwestern’s volatile backcourt, Collins is aware in the phases of the game that Northwestern needs to find success in to compete.
“Our margin for error is very slim on the offensive end,” Collins stated. “We have our limitations.”
Having a big man tandem of two players that are essentially new to the Big Ten play in junior Mathew Nicholson and transfer Tydus Verhoeven (with Nicholson logging a total of 86 minutes in his first two seasons) and a lack of a consistent scorer outside of Audige and Buie, these limitations are not hard to find. Yet, they keep finding ways to win.
In early January, it was easy to dismiss Northwestern’s success as lucky, but with a tournament berth seemingly an inevitability and the ‘Cats showing an ability to win away from home and in Evanston, it’s hard to overlook the job Collins has done. Unlike a year prior, Northwestern has done more with less in 2022-23 and now has its eyes set on goals bigger than just being invited to the dance.
“We’re going to the tourney, so that’s great, “ Collins said following Northwestern’s win against Indiana. “Now, we can focus on getting better.”
Going from being a consensus pick by ESPN to finish 12th in the conference to being in contention to win the Big Ten is reason enough for him to Big Ten Coach of the Year. However, when considering the talent he has lost from a season that put him on the hot seat, it’s hard to look at Northwestern’s resume and think of a coach in the nation who’s done a better job in 2022-23.
Then again, considering Northwestern’s non-ranking coming off their win against No. 1 Purdue that was their third in a row, the ‘Cats coach may not receive either honor. It’s almost fitting for a team that continues to be overlooked.
As Collins stated when asked about the team’s lack of national recognition, “I don’t really care. The same people that would rank us are the same people that picked us last.”