The "NU Era" of Northwestern basketball is not off to a great start.
Chris Collins' group is playing like all those groups of Wildcats that came before him, all those teams that never made an NCAA tournament. And though there's plenty of basketball left to be played this season, if the Cats keep playing like they've played through their first 10 games, that unfortunate streak won't be snapped in 2014.
"Obviously, we've had our ups and our downs so far this season," Collins said Monday on the Big Ten coaches teleconference. "Our schedule is very difficult, we had a chance to challenge ourselves against a lot of really good teams. Just got through a stretch where we played nine games in 22 days and had to go out on the West Coast on two separate occasions to play Stanford, UCLA and Missouri. Although we came up short, I've felt like our guys have been fighting. We've been showing progress. We had a really good win for us on Saturday, coming off three straight losses, beating a good Western Michigan team. I was really pleased with the way our guys bounced back headed to exams."
The tough schedule might sound like an excuse, though it's doubtful Collins is using it as one. The thing is, it's a valid excuse. Those two teams the Cats lost to in Las Vegas by a combined 27 points — UCLA and Missouri — have both made appearances in the top 25 this season (Missouri currently resides there). And road trips to Stanford and North Carolina State were also challenges for a team trying to find its way under a first-year head coach.
But the truth is that the Cats just haven't played that well. They rank last in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging just 66.7 points per game. They are the worst shooting team in the conference, at 41.8 percent from the field, and also rank last in blocked shots, steals and offensive rebounds. Plus, at 5-5, they're the only Big Ten team with more than three losses and with a record fewer than three games over .500.
"We need practice," Collins said. "We're in the first year, a lot of new concepts, a lot of new things we're doing on both ends of the ball. I think what was lost a lot in all the games we played in the last couple weeks was our inability to practice because we had slippage with our habits. I'm looking forward to getting some more practice time so we can get sound again with some of our habits and some of our execution offensively. And then get our legs back because in order for us to win we're going to have to make open shots, we're going to have to make free throws, we're going to have to finish inside, especially once we get into the league and play really good teams night in and night out."
No one expected Collins to turn a program that's never reached the Big Dance into a contender in one of the country's top conferences overnight. There's no doubt, however, that the excitement that accompanied the new coach has dampened a bit and that disappointment has replaced excitement as the primary basketball-related emotion in Evanston.
And the coach knows it, too. So, in an attempt to remedy, he followed up a 21-point defeat to North Carolina State with a few lineup changes in the team's last game against Western Michigan. It not just resulted in a win but one in which the Cats held the visiting Broncos to just 35 points.
"We had lost three games in a row, and when something like that happens my instincts were telling me that we had to shake it up in some way," Collins said. "I didn't know what that would be right after the NC State game. I was disappointed, I felt like in the NC State game that was probably the game where we fought the least. I felt at least against Missouri and UCLA we really fought those guys, we just got beat by better teams. And in the NC State game, I felt like it was a game where they brought the fight to us and we kind of wilted. I wasn't pleased with that, and I felt like we needed to switch it up and change."
All the traveling and a slightly more compact schedule than some other teams have played has led to a tired group, according to Collins. Thankfully, a long time off between games — after Saturday's win over Western Michigan, Northwestern doesn't play again till next Monday — and remaining at home for the rest of the non-conference schedule will give the team plenty of time to rest.
"I think we need to get our legs underneath us a little bit. I think our guys are a little bit shot, in terms of we've been putting a lot of energy in, we've been traveling a lot and playing really good teams," Collins said. "I think we're a little bit tired. ... I'm looking at this week, as the guys knock out their academics, using this week to get ourselves fresh again. We need to practice, but we need to get our legs back, we need to get fresh and kind of attack these last three games."
Despite the less-than-ideal record, though, one thing undetectable in Collins' tone was pessimism. Realism, sure, but the coach remains as optimistic as he was during the preseason. He knows the situation his team is in but looks forward to figuring things out.
"We're still very much a work in progress," he said, "trying to find the right mix and figure out how we can be most successful, but the attitude is great and I'm looking forward to moving forward with the guys and seeing what we can become."