Drew Crawford stretched his hand just high enough to smother Ronnie Johnson’s last gasp three-point attempt, the buzzer rang, and Drew grabbed the ball tight and began screaming to no one in particular. Immediately, as if entranced by the birdcall, Crawford’s teammates sprinted towards their leader and the team celebrated its third Big Ten victory in 10 days. They were not favored in any of their three wins, nor should they have been. There was very little positive to say about the team’s offense in any of their three wins. Yet, the last ten days have turned this edition of Northwestern basketball into one that we will remember for a long time, and not just for being the first team of Collins’s tenure.
The Wildcats are holding their own on the glass and under the rim on defense, and it seems that it’s almost entirely because of attitude. Watching Chris Collins gesticulate and scream on the sideline, like some kind of video game glitch that you pause to laugh at and wonder how the programmers created such a strange caricature of normal human behavior, it’s difficult not to see the direct link between the coach and his team’s newfound badass streak.
When he first got the job, friends both from NU and elsewhere asked me about the hire. My answer was consistent: it seemed exciting, he says all the right things, let’s see what he can actually get these guys to do on the court. It took about a dozen games, but we now have a pretty good idea of what he can do, and it’s incredibly exciting. The time will come to worry about whether a specific Chris Collins team is going to make the tournament. This team obviously isn’t that team. But the identity Collins, his staff, and this team have cultivated together is almost as special as that first bid is going to be someday.
The crowd at Welsh-Ryan tonight was comatose for almost the entire Purdue game, but as regulation time waned, and then the clock ticked through one overtime and a second, the Wildcats fans couldn’t help but feed off the energy of the plucky Cats. After a potentially calamitous foul-out, Alex Olah walked to the bench. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he sulked a bit, or wasn’t entirely present to cheer his teammates. Yet, the player who I saw seem legitimately distressed when somebody took his preferred chair on the bench at UIC immediately became an all-star cheerleader. He waved his towel, he strayed dangerously far from the bench when Northwestern continued to find buckets they needed, and he was there using his arms to implore the crowd to pump it up when the team needed it most. Little moments make you fall in love with teams. Watching Alex Olah take even more joy in the success of his teammates than in his own was one of those kind of moments.
For whatever reason, in watching this team this season I can’t stop thinking about Reggie Hearn. The way Reggie played, especially in his senior year, was marked by a tenacity and a drive that was never matched within the program, and wasn’t particularly common anywhere in college basketball. When this team started the Big Ten season looking just as depressing as they did last year, I remember thinking several times that they needed someone who decided that no matter what players or odds they faced, they were going to be the best possible version of themselves (not anybody else) every night. That’s the spirit Reggie Hearn had, and while he holds down a starting spot in the D-League, his spirit has somehow been broken into pieces and handed out to the 2014 Northwestern Wildcats. Our team of Hearn Horcruxes has been playing with an inexorable identity: they are going to make you work for every last thing you want to do on the court.
The mental toughness required to play hard-nosed defense for 40 minutes is tremendous; the mental toughness required to play against a team playing said defense for 40 minutes is even greater. Northwestern has demonstrated that first kind of toughness and sending an unrelenting stream of the latter to its opponents. Boy, it’s been a lot of fun, and they can keep it going.