Collins and North­west­ern take on NCAA ele­phant and get a big win

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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.

John Fe­in­stein

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