This is a different kind of Northwestern team.
The Wildcats pulled off their second shocking upset win in the last three games Saturday, going into Assembly Hall in Bloomington and beating Indiana, 54-47.
After a rocky non-conference schedule and a trio of blowout losses to open Big Ten play, Northwestern has upset Illinois, hung with a top-five Michigan State team and scored a road win against Indiana in its past three games.
If you happen to be a newborn baby, these aren't your two-week-old cousin's Northwestern Wildcats.
"We have kind of found ourselves, our identity. I think it takes time to figure out your identity," Northwestern head coach Chris Collins. "I'm sure I've made a lot of mistakes along the way. But coming back from Iowa City after our third straight big loss, we got together as a group and said, 'If we're going to make something out of this year, we have got to become a blue-collar, hard-nosed, scrappy basketball team that fights on every possession.' It's about the guys. I am looking out on the court and seeing guys in purple jerseys diving, sprinting, cutting guys off, crashing the boards, and it just makes me so proud that that is my team doing that."
The Cats used the same formula they used to knock off Illinois last weekend in Evanston, playing shut-down defense and getting a horrifying shooting performance from the opposing team. The Hoosiers shot 25 percent from the field Saturday, making 15 baskets in the entire game.
Collins' call to action for a hard-nosed approach seems to have worked. After allowing an average of 81 points per game through the first three games of Big Ten play (0-3), the Cats have buckled down and allowed an average of 48 points per game over their past three (2-1). That's practically cutting the points allowed in half. Saturday, Indiana scored just 19 points in the first half, this two games after Illinois scored 15 in the first half against Northwestern.
"I thought we played sound defense. We didn't give them easy baskets. That's our whole thing," Collins said. "We try to take away layups from a team, whether it be in transition or in the half court. We try to make them make contested jump shots. Some nights they are going to make them, and if they do we have to tip our cap. Today we were fortunate. Indiana didn't make their shots."
Throw in an offense that's getting the job done, and you've got a recipe for a drastically and rapidly improved Northwestern team. Saturday, Drew Crawford dropped 17 points, while Tre Demps added 15 off the bench. Demps has been particularly effective as a contributor of instant offense. He's scored a total of 38 points in the past three games.
Perhaps it's just a hot streak, but even if that's all it is, it's something observers couldn't have seen coming as little as 10 days ago. Collins has something cooking in Evanston, and the Cats have suddenly gone from the Big Ten's laughing stock to a threat to opposing teams.