EVANSTON, Ill. — Like a boxer sprawled on the canvas, Northwestern coach Chris Collins seemed like he was ready for the final bell. It turned out he wasn’t quite down for the count.
These days, Collins is on solid footing. And so are the Wildcats.
“I fight,” Collins said. “I’m a fighter. I always have been. I’m not a quitter in any sense of the imagination. If I put my heart and energy into something, I’m gonna see it through. … If you get knocked down, get up. Keep fighting until you’ve got no breath left.”
The Wildcats (20-8, 11-6 Big Ten) are second in the conference and on course for their second NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years, with a shot to break the program record for wins in a season. They knocked off a team ranked No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time, and with the Big Ten Tournament approaching, they’re in an unfamiliar position.
Northwestern, of all teams, has a target on its back.
It seems almost hard to believe, considering Collins looked like he might get fired a year ago. Northwestern opted instead to bring him back for a 10th season, sticking with the coach who led the Wildcats to their lone NCAA Tournament appearance to date in 2017. The decision seems to be paying off.
“Coach is a really, really, really good guy and a really good coach,” said star guard Boo Buie, who is fifth in the Big Ten at 17.6 points per game. “He kind of gets the short end of the stick because we are Northwestern and it’s a little bit harder to have good sports, just as far as the academics go. I don’t think the public eye can really see that all the time, but Coach as been with us from the jump.”
Collins, whose dad Doug played and coached in the NBA, seemed like the perfect fit when he was hired to replace the fired Bill Carmody in 2013.
Growing up about 10 miles from Welsh Ryan Arena in suburban Northbrook, he was chosen Mr. Basketball in Illinois. He went on to star at Duke and spent 13 years as an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski before taking over at Northwestern.
Everything seemed to fall into place his first few seasons. And then, it all fell apart.
Northwestern won 20 games in back-to-back seasons and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 2017, beating Vanderbilt before losing to Gonzaga. But instead of emerging as a consistent winner, the Wildcats careened off course.
Northwestern went 60-90 overall and 26-71 in conference play over the next five seasons. The heat on Collins was so high a year ago that Athletic Director Derrick Gragg released a statement in March saying the coach would get at least one more season to turn around his struggling program.
Now, Northwestern is on course to finish with its highest win percentage since the 1945-46 team went 15-5. The Wildcats also have a shot at the 2016-17 team’s record of 24 wins.
“We’re 10 toes behind Coach,” senior Robbie Beran said. “I believe in him. That’s why I’m here. He brought me here.”
Led by one of the Big Ten’s best backcourt combos in Buie and Chase Audige, who’s averaging 14.5 points, Collins thought the team had a chance to be better than outsiders expected.
A strong showing in Cancun in November in which Northwestern beat Liberty and pushed No. 13 Auburn in a one-point loss boosted that belief. So did the way the team responded following a blowout loss to Pittsburgh at home a few days later.
Northwestern bounced back by winning at No. 20 Michigan State, another signal to Collins that “there’s something there.” It’s something they have continued to show.
This month, the Wildcats beat a No. 1 team for the first time when they knocked off Purdue. They then squeezed past Indiana after blowing a 19-point halftime lead, giving them a program record fourth win over a ranked opponent. Northwestern hadn’t beaten Top 25 teams in consecutive games since January 2009.
“We’ve been through it all,” Beran said. “We’ve been through the lows. We’ve been through the highs. We’ve had our ups and our downs. And now to see this success just kind of motivates us even more.”
The question is whether Northwestern can sustain it. That obviously didn’t happen the last time the Wildcats had a season like this.
With most of the top players back from the NCAA team, the 2017-18 Wildcats won just 15 games.
Collins, who has a 153-158 record, said that group lost “a little bit” of its “competitive edge.” He pointed the finger at himself for not doing a better job leading a team facing high expectations.
“You just hope to get back to a situation like that again and be better - and be better for your guys,” he said.
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