Collins arrived to a roster with one lingering star, a former solid recruit coming off of suspension and some misfit toys recruited by another coach.
Five days ago, it all made sense. The Wildcats were overmatched. They were dismantled by Iowa, which only added to a pile of embarrassing results. At that point, to be trite, they could have given in.
Really, they could have. New coach, lost players, no shred of offense. If you had told me (or anyone who watched) how this team could compete, I'd have given up my seat on press row.
Something changed. We can agonize over the offense, coaching, KenPom blurbs, whatever. They started playing so damn hard.
This is why, in a season best described as "lost," there will be many moral victories. They will–for the most part–make fans watch and then steal one or two more upsets. But brace yourself CC, because we'll be proud more often than not.
On Wednesday, the Wildcats had no points guards dressed. Their best player was laboring through the worst game of his career. The fourth-ranked team was in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Yet they competed for just about the entire game. It was borderline stupid. It made no sense. Sanjay Lumpkin (who almost literally can't make a layup) led the charge with an inspired defensive performance. Tre Demps continued to be aggressive but fringy. Alex Olah once again attempted one-quarter of the shots he should be taking.
Sure, you could argue that teams will stop shooting around 10 percent from behind the arc. It's true to an extent. But from my vantage point, they're forcing opponents to rush bad shots. On Sunday, Kale Abrahamson made Illinois forward John Ekey look nauseous by harassing him off of every screen. Like a quarterback sacked too many times, Ekey started to panic. On several open looks in the second half, the sharpshooter clanked three after three. It was quite the effect.
Northwestern is trying to fit the mold of "overachiever." The Wildcats' strategy is to make the game painfully slow and drive opponents insane — all while never bothering to score. The offense isn't even close to good. They almost look disinterested, each acting as though the next guy deserves to brick an 18-footer more than he does. It's like they're tanking their Math SATs to save their energy for Reading and improve their superscore.
The Illinois media arrived in droves on Sunday, watched the game and thought: "This is the worst thing we have ever seen." Yet the NU contingent was thrilled. We had to appreciate their guts.
You could say that an ugly win can be more impressive than a pretty one. Perhaps NU could have won by torching Illinois from the perimeter, shooting 60-some percent to steal the game.
Illinois shot poorly. Illinois was bad, is bad and doesn't deserve an NCAA Tournament berth. The point is that the NU team facing Iowa could not win a single Big Ten game. The point is that despite the obvious adversity–and the people like me chirping nonstop about the 2014 recruits–they have this strange internal belief. And good for them.
It might fall apart again. NU faces Indiana at the exact wrong time, with Purdue, Iowa and Wisconsin to follow. They will likely take some blowouts, especially if Drew Crawford keeps failing to score.
All you can ask is that players stay motivated, but that's easier said than done. We'll hopefully never remember this season much down the road, except as the starting point of the great Chris Collins era. But for now, the on-court product is worth cheering for.
They lose, but they fight, and that's all we need for now.