Northwestern’s season looked like a lost cause just a few games ago. The Wildcats sagged with a 7-9 record, and they plummeted to an 0-3 start in the Big Ten. In those three losses, their average margin of defeat was more than 25 points.
Since a 93-67 loss at Iowa, Northwestern has won three of its last four games.
The streak started with a close victory against in-state rival Illinois, then ranked No. 23 in the nation.
The Wildcats proceeded to lose to No. 4 Michigan State, though they remained close well into the second half.
A one-game road trip to Indiana surprisingly ended successfully for the Wildcats as they upset the Hoosiers. In early January, winning any road game in the Big Ten, especially one in a place as daunting as Assembly Hall, seemed highly improbable.
Most recent was Northwestern’s double-overtime win against Purdue on Tuesday.
The key behind this recent spurt has been a change in head coach Chris Collins‘ game plan. The Wildcats played with one of the slower paces in the Big Ten throughout non-conference play, but Collins took that a step further in the last four games.
Northwestern’s games during this 3-1 stretch have produced only 58.4 possessions per contest. The Wildcats’ have been relentless defensively, and they have managed to make enough timely shots to pull out these close victories.
Their offense is easily the least-efficient in the Big Ten, ranking No. 324 in the nation on Kenpom. But, their defensive efficiency has boomed into the top 20 on Kenpom. As of Wednesday, it ranked No. 18 overall and No. 3 in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan and Iowa coach Fran McCaffery are both having phenomenal seasons. Both had high, preseason expectations, and both have exceeded those expectations.
Ryan and McCaffery have been considered favorites to win the Big Ten Coach of the Year award since the start of conference play.
Collins deserves to join that conversation. At least for now.
Experts and college basketball media outlets, including The Catch and Shoot, wrote off Northwestern as essentially a lock for last place in the Big Ten when conference play began.
Collins, in his first year, has led the Wildcats to a respectable 3-4 start in the nation’s toughest league. Northwestern sits in seventh place, ahead of nationally ranked Ohio State. It is only a half-game out of fifth place and one game out of fourth.
Due to a dreadful non-conference performance and a poor, 10-10 overall record, this is not going to turn into a miraculous, Cinderella story where Northwestern goes from 7-9 to its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in a matter of weeks.
But if Northwestern winds up with a case for the NIT or even the CBI, Collins deserves serious consideration for Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Collins gets a chance to make another statement in front of a national audience Saturday, when Northwestern hosts No. 10 Iowa at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Hawkeyes dominated the Wildcats when they met in Iowa City on Jan. 9.
How Northwestern performs Saturday will allow everyone to gauge just how much the Wildcats have improved under Collins in the recent weeks.