Chris Collins keeps talking about having to grind out wins. It's true, and Tuesday night's double-overtime win against Purdue has been the grindiest yet.
Northwestern's streak of great games was extended to four following Tuesday's 63-60 win. Yes, you read that correctly, the Cats and Boilermakers played 50 minutes of basketball and scored a combined 123 points. But, see, that's what makes this Northwestern run so incredible, one in which the Cats have won three of four contests. Not only do they not seem to care that they can't muster much of an offense, but the reason it hasn't hampered their chances is thanks to the ability to get other teams to have just as much trouble scoring.
Who cares if it's pretty? This is Northwestern, and wins are wins.
"It's just a big win for us. I'm so proud of our guys, I really mean that, who we've become these last couple weeks. We shoot 4-for-24 from 3, our starters were 0-for-16. ... I don't know what that is, I just know that we won," Collins said postgame. "I don't know what the analytics say, I just know we won. We didn't shoot well, but we did what we had to do to win the game. We're a tough team. Again we won with our defense."
The identity that Collins wanted to create when he came to Evanston has taken full effect, and it's taken full effect much quicker than almost everybody expected. Defense, defense, defense has been the name of the game in recent outings for the Cats, and it's worked wonders. Wednesday vs. the Boilermakers, the Cats looked done for, but they just kept going, making shots exclusively when they were needed and playing terrific defense. Northwestern's first lead didn't come until the second overtime period.
"We just hung in there. I don't know how better to describe it," Collins said. "Everyone knows we have a tough time scoring, and that's probably not going to change. I want our guys to stay confident and keep getting the shots up, but the teams we're playing are really good. We're in the Big Ten, it's the best league in America. Coaches are good, they take you out of your stuff, these games are battles. And our guys are learning how to win those kind of games. When I first started, my main goal this year was to make us a scrappy, hard-nosed, blue-collar team that fights, and we do that. We've now done it for four-straight games. And that's not going to change. We may not win, but I promise these guys are going to fight."
So what's changed? Northwestern is playing with the same players who stumbled out to a 7-6 record in the non-conference schedule and continued to get blown out in the first three league games. Senior guard Drew Crawford, who led the way with 19 points Wednesday and blocked Purdue's last-second attempt to tie the game in double OT, said it came down to playing tough for 40 minutes.
"In past games, we were showing effort, we were fighting, but we were kind of having lapses where we'd give up a big run or we'd kind of lay back a little bit. And I think that's really what we're changing," Crawford said. "We're playing games for 40 minutes. In this case tonight, it was 50 minutes. But we're finishing games, and we're playing hard through the entire game."
It wasn't supposed to happen this fast. And given the offensive woes, it can be well-argued that it hasn't happened yet. But Collins has something brewing in just his first year on the job in Evanston. And if you reside in the group that thinks he's waiting for his own recruits to come in before things can fully get going, Collins has a message for you.
"I'm not coaching for the future, I'm coaching for this year," he said. "We'll handle the future when the future comes. Look, I'm soaking wet with sweat, I'm in the fight with our guys. I'm coaching for this year, I'm trying to help these guys win every game. And that's not going to change."