Collins and Northwestern take on NCAA elephant and get a big win
Eight days ago, into the wee hours of Sunday morning, Northwestern men’s basketball Coach Chris Collins sat and watched the tape of his team’s loss that night to Indiana.
Time after time, he reviewed the last 90 seconds: the sevenpoint lead that went away in the blink of an eye; the missed shots; the lapses on defense.
“The more I watched, the angrier I got,” Collins said. “After the game, I’d been disappointed, even sad. But when I watched the tape and saw how tight we had played at the end, it made me angry.”
It also forced him to make a decision. For a solid month, Collins had done everything in his power to keep the elephant out of the locker room, the one he had known would show up sooner or later the day he took the Northwestern job in the spring of 2013: the NCAA tournament.
That’s been the one truly striking thing about Northwestern basketball for countless years now. There are five programs that have played Division I basketball since it was formed in 1948 but have never reached the NCAA tournament: Army, The Citadel, St. Francis of Brooklyn, William & Mary and Northwestern.
Only one is in a power conference. Only one hosted the first NCAA Final Four — years before anyone thought to call it that — in 1939. That would be Northwestern.
Collins — Duke player and graduate; son of Hall of Famer Doug Collins; protege of Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski — was hired, quite simply, to change history.
“I knew when I came here that we were going to get to a point where we had a chance,” Collins said. “Obviously, I wanted that challenge or I wouldn’t have taken the job in the first place. But the closer it got, the more the pressure built.
“The kids were certainly aware of it. How could they not be? They’re on their phones, on Twitter all day, every day. There was no way to hide from it.”
The talk began earlier this season when the Wildcats won at Ohio State for the first time since 1977. They started 1-2 in Big Ten play but then reeled off six straight conference wins — a first in program history — that culminated with a 68-55 win over Indiana on Jan. 29. At that point, Northwestern looked like a lock for the NCAAs, a team that would be talking more about seeding in early March than the bubble.
Then Scottie Lindsey got mononucleosis. The 6-foot-5 junior was having a breakout season, leading the team in scoring at 15.4 points per game. He missed four games, and Northwestern lost three of them — although the one victory was an impressive upset of Wisconsin on the road.
“I tried, really starting with the Ohio State game, to focus on small goals, doing things we hadn’t done before,” Collins said. “We hadn’t won in Columbus in 40 years, I made a big deal out of that. We hadn’t won six in a row in the Big Ten — hey, let’s celebrate that. The win at Wisconsin, same thing.
“The elephant was always there. We all knew that. I just chose to pretend it wasn’t there.”
Sitting in the dark last Sunday, with his family sleeping, Collins made a decision as he watched the Indiana tape: The time for pretending he couldn’t see the elephant had passed.
“If there’s one thing I learned from K [Krzyzewski] it’s that there are times when you just have to rely on your instincts,” Collins said. “You can’t try to think something through logically, you just have to do what your gut is telling you. My gut was telling me we had to take it head on.”
And so, when his team gathered before practice Monday, Collins told his players that he knew the tournament was on their mind, and that it was on his mind, too. They had all gotten tight at Indiana when it appeared that a victory that almost certainly would have clinched a berth was just about in hand. They had two very good teams coming in to play in Welsh-Ryan Arena that week, and if they played tentatively or nervously, they weren’t going to beat either one.
“Maybe it was coincidence, maybe not,” Collins said. “But we practiced well before the Michigan game and we won a great game against a good team that had been playing really well.”
That win, of course, will live in Northwestern lore: 67-65, on a length-of-the-court inbounds pass from Nathan Taphorn to Dererk Pardon for the winning layup at the buzzer.
“What made the pass so amazing was I hammered the kid [Taphorn] about not airmailing it over everyone’s head,” Collins said, laughing, of calling the play during a timeout. “If he does that, they get the ball back under the basket. I was scared to death about that.”
Collins added: “It was amazing that we made history on a play like that. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
With the win, the Wildcats won a program-record 21st game and improved to 10-7 in the Big Ten. They are a virtual lock now to be in the 68-team field when it is announced next Sunday.
“It was a great play,” Michigan Coach John Beilein said. “Reminded me a little of Christian Laettner.”
On arguably the most famous shot in NCAA tournament history, Laettner had taken a pass from Grant Hill and nailed a 17foot jumper to enable Duke to beat Kentucky at the buzzer in the 1992 East Region final. One of Collins’s first calls — among hundreds that came after Northwestern’s victory Wednesday — came from Hill.
“We were laughing because Chris’s kid [Taphorn] had to throw his pass over a defender,” said Hill, who played with Collins at Duke in the two seasons that followed that famous play. Then Hill added a punch line: “I didn’t, but I told Chris I had to spoonfeed the pass to Christian because he had terrible hands.”
It wasn’t until after all the postgame hoopla that Collins finally got to talk to his dad. Doug Collins was in Boston, doing an NBA game on TNT. “The truck kept giving him updates during the game,” Collins said. “It was a pretty emotional conversation. Dad’s become kind of a grandfather around here for all our players.”
Now, though, there’s more work to do. Purdue comes to town Sunday. Then there’s the Big Ten tournament at Verizon Center and then the big party on Selection Sunday.
“I’m glad we’re playing Purdue on Sunday, not Saturday,” Collins said Friday afternoon. “We needed a full day, all of us, to collect ourselves. Everyone needs to understand that this isn’t the ultimate goal — it’s the first one. I didn’t come here just to get to an NCAA tournament. I came here to get there on a regular basis, to compete, to go deep. There’s still a lot of work to do.”
No doubt. But when that bracket is officially unveiled next Sunday evening, there will be a lot of hugs and cheers and tears.
The Final Five is about to become four.
The elephant has left the building.