Big Ten basketball previews: Northwestern Wildcats

Big Ten basketball previews: Northwestern Wildcats
November 7, 2013, 2:00 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Chris Collins' arrival in Evanston has created a positive buzz around this Northwestern basketball team, something that hasn't been seen in some time. "An exciting time," junior guard Dave Sobolewski called it at Big Ten basketball media day last week.

But Collins will ultimately be judged not by piqued interest but by what his team does on the court. So, while the intangible changes in Evanston have been well-documented, what's new with the X's and O's?

Former coach Bill Carmody was running the Princeton offense. Collins, to put it simply, is not.

"Obviously, we're knocking the Princeton out," Sobolewski said. "We're going to be a motion-based team. We've got a lot quick-hitting sets in place already. And then, it's one of those things where if we don't get anything out of the sets, we're just kind of allowed to play. It's not going to be whatever we want to do, we've got some actions in place. But it's going to allow us to make a lot of reads by ourselves. It's exciting. With the weapons that we've got coming back that were hurt last year, I think it's really just a fun and exciting time for us to make a jump as a program."

[MORE: Northwestern hopes Collins can build with local recruits]

Collins credited Carmody for how well his players learned that system, but the transition to something different is on, and Collins knows it will take some time.

"To kind of get out of a little bit of those things has been an adjustment. And really, initially, in the spring, the summer, we held off on putting in a lot of offense because I wanted the guys to really just get out and play and see kind of the guys I was working with, what they could be good at. ... Once we kind of saw what our personnel was and what we were working with, we kind of tried to develop a system that can be successful for our team. And, really, to me that's what the essence of coaching is. I think coaching is about taking the personnel you have and trying to make it successful, what kind of defense you play, what kind of offense you play.

"So we're trying to implement some new things but also stay true to some of the things maybe that has been good for some of these players. So I think it will be a little bit of a mixture of both here in this first year."

But Collins' biggest emphasis is coming on the defensive side of the ball, so much so that some of the new coach's first practices with his new team didn't even include a ball.

"We have a huge emphasis on defense," senior guard/forward Drew Crawford said. "That's been something from Day 1 with coach Collins. I remember the first few individuals in the spring, a lot of them were completely defensive focused. There were some where you didn't even touch a basketball. So applying those principles on defense is something that's been huge."

[RELATED: For Northwestern, excitement welcomed, patience preached]

Last year

The Wildcats finished with a 13-19 record, going just 4-14 in Big Ten play. It was the conference schedule that really led to the dismissal of Bill Carmody, as Northwestern dropped nine games in a row to finish the 2012-13 season.

At the helm

Chris Collins is beginning his first season as the Wildcats' head coach, taking over for the departed Bill Carmody, who's best finish in the Big Ten was a fifth-place tie in 2004. Collins, the son of former Chicago Bulls head coach Doug Collins, served as an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke for the past 13 seasons. Those are two high-quality basketball minds to serve as mentors.

[MORE: Big Ten basketball previews: Illinois Fighting Illini]

Departed and returned

Two of the team's top four scorers moved on after last season: Reggie Hearn (13.4 points per game) and Jared Swopshire (9.7 points per game). Swopshire was also the Cats' leading rebounder with 6.7 boards per game. But the return of Drew Crawford and Dave Sobolewski should buoy Northwestern, as the two combined to average 23.3 points per game a season ago. Crawford's return is especially important, as he only appeared in 10 games last year. He was named to the All-Big Ten third team following the 2011-12 season.

Fresh faces

Only one name on the Northwestern roster wasn't there a season ago: true freshman forward Nathan Taphorn, a native of Pekin, Ill.

[RELATED: Nine newcomers means season of change for Illini]

Non-conference tests

There will be fewer teams with as many challenges in the non-conference schedule as the Wildcats, who visit Stanford for their second game of the season. Northwestern will be in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving for games against Missouri and UCLA as part of the Las Vegas Invitational. The Cats travel to North Carolina State for their Big Ten/ACC Challenge game, and they close out their non-conference slate with a home game vs. DePaul.

Season outlook

Collins has said that he's trying to build a program in Evanston, and building takes time. There's almost nowhere to go but up following an 11th-place finish in the Big Ten last season. Also hanging over the team's head — or in the back of their minds, as Crawford put it — is the fact that the Cats have never been to the NCAA tournament. Collins is bringing the buzz, now it's time to see if a team that's mostly the same as last season can turn that into success on the court.

Northwestern tips off its season Saturday night vs. Eastern Illinois in Evanston.

[MORE: Ohio State title dream still alive for Zion native Smith]

This is the second in a series of 2013-14 Big Ten basketball previews, which CSNChicago.com will be rolling out over the next few days as the college basketball season gets into full swing. Be sure to check out all the previews to get ready for your favorite Big Ten team's upcoming season.

Thursday, Nov. 7: Illinois and Northwestern

Friday, Nov. 8: Penn State and Nebraska

Saturday, Nov. 9: Purdue and Minnesota

Sunday, Nov. 10: Iowa and Indiana

Monday, Nov. 11: Michigan and Wisconsin

Tuesday, Nov. 12: Ohio State and Michigan State