EVANSTON, Ill. – In a very weird year for the Big Ten, Northwestern’s midseason renewal epitomizes the strange. The Wildcats have won four of five games entering a home contest with Nebraska on Saturday. They are 5-5 in Big Ten play, tied for fourth place, and a win Saturday would put Northwestern above .500 through 11 league games for the first time since 2004. And all of it began in one 12-hour stretch in early January, initiated by a wee-hours talk on a bus and capped by another discussion, a permanent marker and names scrawled on a whiteboard the next day.
The launching point followed an 0-3 to start the Big Ten schedule, topped with a 26-point loss at Iowa on Jan. 9. In his customary seat in the second row on the right side of the bus for the ride home, Chris Collins watched a horror movie. The game film from Carver-Hawkeye Arena filled the Northwestern coach with a desire to scream or hurl the machine onto the pavement. The Wildcats lost, but the surrender in it – that Collins could not abide. He saw it in two previous Big Ten defeats. He saw it again in Iowa City. He would have to talk to his team about that.
The bus pulled into a driveway near Welsh-Ryan Arena and Collins walked toward the back for an end-of-trip address. That was standard. Northwestern players saw that coming. What they did not see coming was their coach’s face coated in anguish. One player thought Collins was near tears. His words cut through the fog after a miserable four-hour ride.
We’re going to find a group of fighters, Collins told his team. I don’t know who that’s going to be. Could be five guys, could be 10 guys. But we’re going to go in the direction of the fighters.
“The hurt in his face really kind of resonated in everybody else,” Northwestern guard Tre Demps said. “It was horrible. You could see that he was hurting, everybody else was hurting, and we knew we had to change something. It was just like he had enough. And I think we followed suit.”
Players recalled Iowa literally laughing at them during the romp at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They recognized something was wrong. Collins’ bus speech caught their attention, yes, but it wasn’t anything they didn’t know as they collected their belongings and contemplated what came next.
It was, though, another instance in which Collins’ passion represented a departure from previous seasons. “You could just see the pain on his face,” sophomore forward Kale Abrahamson said. “He takes it hard when we lose. That’s been something that’s really good for us this year. Last year, I feel like if we lost, it didn’t hurt us as deeply. If we lose, it’s like a funeral around here. If we win, it’s great. We want to win. We like that feeling much more than the other one.”
If Collins’ speech provided a pivot point, it was not an end-of-discussion moment.
When Northwestern gathered the next afternoon for film review and a workout, coaches opened the floor for ways in which the team could improve. Collins asked his players: What can we do? In turn, the Wildcats talked about rescuing a season and about how they needed to trust one another. As senior guard Drew Crawford put it, Northwestern set about “making sure we knew we love each other as teammates.”
And then Collins had his team put it in writing.
He picked up a black Sharpie. He chose a corner of a white board in the film room and pointed to it.
If you sign your name here, Collins said, you’re going to put forth everything you can the rest of the year. You’re all-in. This is us. Be with us the rest of the year.
Collins signed the board and turned to his team again.
I’m in, he said. You guys with me?
And then he left the room.
Every Northwestern coach, player and team manager signed the board after that, creating a list of vows renewed each day they come to work.
“That was all about buying in,” said Crawford, who has led the charge by averaging 20.6 points over his last five games. “We had a rough start to the Big Ten season and we just said, this is not what we’re going to be about, this is not what our program is about. If we’re going to lose, were going to go down swinging. We have a chance to make some noise. To win, we just have to have everyone buy in.”
Said Abrahamson: “It was kind of like putting your stamp on something. If your name is on something, that means you own it, you’re going to be responsible. Every time we go in there and we see that, we’re like, we need to own this. We’re not going back to Iowa.”
They have not. Heart-to-hearts aside, Collins and his staff reassessed the talent on hand and made the philosophical decision to mold Northwestern into a deliberate, resolute defensive club. The Wildcats allowed 54.8 percent shooting in the first three Big Ten games and just 34.2 percent shooting since. They surrendered 1.27 points per possession in the first trio of league contests and just 0.905 after.
The rebounding is better, the weak-side help and trust is better, and the results are better, too. “It kind of evolved with that Illinois game (on Jan. 12) being a total grinder, 49-43, and you end up winning one of those types of games where neither team can score, finding a way to win it late,” Collins said. “That was the biggest moment because the guys saw they could win, they could compete, they could be successful. But it had to be a different way than we originally maybe had thought.”
How much anyone should buy in to Northwestern remains debatable. The Wildcats’ RPI is 85. They might need to win out in the regular season and/or win the Big Ten tournament to earn the first NCAA tournament invite in program history.
But given the limitations of the roster and Northwestern's poor start to the season, an NIT berth would be no small feat. Besides, every bit of Collins’ first season is bricklaying for the future. No matter the postseason destination -- if any -- the real question is if this defensive resolve translates when Collins collects talent suited for a speedier style.
“I hope so,” Collins said. “Maybe I don’t say that right when I say it – ultimately, I’d like to be a team where we can get up and down and score a little bit easier. But I don’t think it changes the things we’re talking about – the fighting, the defense, the toughness, the embracing the little things, all of that. I don’t want that to go out the window. Maybe as we continue to evolve, the scores do get a little bit higher, and we don’t have to win in the 50s. But what we’ve become, I want to keep that going, even as we move forward. Because it’s all great stuff.”
As he left his bus seat in the second row that night in early January, Collins didn’t know precisely what he would say to his team. He only knew what it needed to hear. It is unlikely the 12 hours that followed will be referenced in March amid a delirious celebration of a historic NCAA tournament bid. Because that moment is a long way from reality. But you have to start somewhere.