Earlier this season, a stretch of eye-openingly strong play during the conference schedule seemed impossible for this Northwestern team.
The Wildcats started out poorly in the first season of a "NU Era" under Chris Collins, and though the schedule was more difficult than some, the Cats kept losing and losing and losing. Big Ten play started even worse, as Northwestern dropped their first three contests by a total of 76 points. Yes, the competition was strong, but the Cats weren't enjoying getting run out of the building. So after the third of those blowout losses, against Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the Cats returned to Evanston and vowed to make a change.
"I just think after that Iowa game. That was a real downer for us," Collins said Monday. "I think all of us, myself included, we'd been preaching it but we said, 'Look, we can't do this, we've got to change, we've got to grind them out, we've got to slow some of these teams down. That's why that Illinois game was so big because not only did we say it, but then we acted upon it."
That Illinois game was big. The Wildcats beat a top-25 team, quite frankly a stunning upset against an Illini team that had been playing pretty well to that point. Then came a hang-in-there loss to a top-five Michigan State team before a road upset Saturday at Indiana. The two wins have been shockers, but three games of great play in a row is what's really gaining the Cats some attention. And, according to Collins, it's been all about cranking up the defense.
"Our ability to embrace the defense. Our first three games, they were scoring about 81 a game. And we just can't play a game like that in this league with this team. It doesn't mean we'll be that forever, but with this team this year, we don't have the capability of scoring 81 points in league games," he said. "For us to win we've got to keep the scores down, we've got to manage our possessions ... We have to be really smart offensively, we can't turn the ball over and we have to grind it out on defense."
That's exactly what's been happening. After allowing 81 points per game in those first three Big Ten losses, Northwestern allowed an average of just 48 points over the past three. That includes holding the Hoosiers and Illini to fewer than 20 points in the first halves of those respective wins.
It's a dramatic transformation from what Northwestern looked like not too long ago. While offense has been hard to come by all year — the Cats are still the Big Ten's lowest-scoring team at 61.9 points per game — Northwestern seems to have found a secondary scorer in reserve guard Tre Demps, someone that can be paired with Drew Crawford and actually produce some points. But what the transformation has really been is one from an offensive mindset to a defensive one.
"None of these guys have ever judged themselves based on their ability to do dirty work," Collins said. "It's always been, 'Am I making shots or am I doing this offensively?' And now our guys are loving getting loose balls, taking charges. They're taking pride in those things. That's what makes me really proud."
So now, as is the case with every taste of victory, comes the challenge of keeping it going. Northwestern next plays Purdue on Tuesday night, and though the Boilermakers aren't among the conference's top teams, they're not a team that should be taken lightly. Matt Painter's young group is playing well, winners of its last three games, and seven-foot center A.J. Hammons provides a brand-new defensive challenge for the newly defensive-minded Wildcats. But if the last three games have shown Collins anything, it's that his team is capable of handling success.
"I think so far they've responded well," Collins said. "I worried after Illinois because it was a great win for us and we felt good about it, but then how do you play the next game? Do you just sit back and celebrate what you did, or do you move on to the next game? And I thought we played really well against Michigan State, we just came up a little bit short. And we carried it over to Indiana and were able to get a win. You always worry, with these guys being college kids, how are they going to deal with some success. You have to stay hungry and we have to stay scrappy, and we found that's our formula, that's the only way we can be competitive. If we don't bring those elements, we're going to lose and we're probably going to lose badly. The good thing is the guys are really embracing the way we're doing things, and they're playing really hard and that's all I can ask of them.
"We're in a good place right now. We've got a good thing going. And guys are embracing the way we're playing."