Hickey: Chris Collins and Northwestern giving a lesson in the power of patience
Fishing has always annoyed me. Too much waiting for the payoff. Especially in my case, when the payoff is more likely to be a stick than a fish.
But those who have the patience for it get the payoff. Maybe even enough of a payoff to get a meal out of it. Or a trophy for the mancave wall.
So what’s the purpose of this fishing parable?
Because I need a deep-rooted psychological excuse for my worst take of the summer.
That’s when I placed Northwestern coach Chris Collins on the hottest seat in the Big Ten. Indeed, I wondered what he was still doing there in the first place, figuring the 2022-23 season was an exercise in inevitability.
It’s pretty clear that we’re past the point where Collins is going to rekindle the magic of 2017.
Chris Collins isn’t just on a hot seat. He’s sitting on a 5-alarm fire. And given the look of Northwestern’s roster next season, he’ll be attempting to put it out with a squirt gun.
The part about Collins sitting on an inferno wasn’t wrong. Northwestern has endured 5 straight losing seasons since its maiden NCAA Tournament voyage in 2017.
But as it turns out, the Wildcats are as equipped to put it out as the Chicago Fire Department.
Roster patience; coaching innovation
It takes a lot to win at Northwestern. There’s a reason it took the Wildcats 78 years to reach their first NCAA Tournament.
That’s only going to get more difficult the further we dive into the transfer portal era. Northwestern’s academic rigor creates a very select pool of potential incoming transfers. And the opposite is true for players going the other direction — anybody will be happy to add a Northwestern student or graduate.
That includes Duke and North Carolina, which poached Northwestern’s starting frontcourt last summer. Center Ryan Young transferred to Duke and power forward Pete Nance headed to UNC.
For a team that went 15-16 and finished the year with a humiliating 112-76 loss to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament, it looked like a body blow from which recovery was unlikely.
But even with those defections, Collins built a roster equipped for this season to be special.
The Wildcats don’t have much in the way of blue-chip talent, but they do have a group of players who spent 3 years taking their lumps in Big Ten play. It took a while, but this year they showed they’re ready to push back.
Point guard Boo Buie is a 4-year starter. Small forward Chase Audige is in his 3rd-year starting after transferring from William & Mary. Robbie Beran, who rotated with Young and Nance in the post for 3 years, is now the leader in the frontcourt.
Only Indiana, Iowa and Rutgers brought back more returning production in the B1G. It’s no coincidence all of those teams are in the top half of the league standings.
Clearly, Collins and Northwestern AD Derrick Gragg had faith that their veteran lineup would pay dividends this season.
But Northwestern isn’t trending toward its second NCAA Tournament appearance by keeping everything the same.
With the losses of Young and Nance taking away from Northwestern’s ability to control the glass, the Cats are playing more aggressively on defense. Northwestern’s defense ranks 10th nationally in blocked shot percentage, 37th in turnover percentage and 12th in 2-point shooting percentage.
Audige, who leads the Big Ten with 2.5 steals per game, is the face of Northwestern’s new-look defense.
The overall increase in created turnovers is significant. Last year was Collins’ previous best team at forcing turnovers. Northwestern was 115th nationally.
And now the tough part …
With Sunday’s 54-52 win at Wisconsin, Northwestern guaranteed itself a .500 or better season for the first time since 2017. At the very worst, the Wildcats should find themselves in the NIT.
But now that they’ve gotten this far, that is not the goal anybody is looking to accomplish.
Northwestern is very much on the NCAA Tournament bubble at the moment, trending toward a date in Dayton for the First Four. Northwestern’s nonconference strength of schedule, which ranks 277th according to KenPom, will be a drag on Selection Sunday.
You can’t exactly blame Collins for that. When you’ve had 5 straight losing seasons, you need to stack up as many wins as possible.
With at least 9 games left — 8 regular-season plus the Big Ten Tournament — the Cats probably need at least 4 more wins to feel comfortable. The good news on that front is 4 of them are at home, and the Big Ten Tourney is in Chicago. The less-pleasant news is that 1 of those home games is against No. 1 Purdue.
For all its defensive strengths, Northwestern remains offensively challenged.
The Cats are 297th nationally in 3-point shooting (31.6%) and 300th in 2-point shooting (47%). If Northwestern doesn’t get to the free-throw line, it doesn’t win.
At this point, though, the story isn’t necessarily about whether Northwestern makes the Tournament. It’s that the Cats are in position to get there by the administration having the patience to do nothing when it seemed for all the world like change was needed.
That’s easier done at Northwestern than, well, just about anywhere else in the B1G. Nebraska is likely the only other basketball program where a coach can get by with 5 straight losing seasons.
But even though the timeline may be shorter for other programs, the lesson is still there.
Sometimes landing the big catch isn’t a matter of casting over and over again. It’s a matter of keeping your line in the water.