You can execute the offense cleanly, but the shots might not fall. Even with talented scoring options including Drew Crawford and Jershon Cobb, NU will struggle on occasion. This happened last night, with Collins' team shooting only 32 percent in the first half.
Rather than berating players for sloppiness and missed shots, Collins looked victorious, happy that his team maintained the defensive effort necessary to win.
"Look, I was pleased to win the game," he said. "We played a very good basketball team and that's why we scheduled them… For us to hold that team to 46 points, I was pleased with our defense and I thought the energy was great."
Collins ushered in a new style, with a defense-oriented starting lineup anchored by talented perimeter stoppers in Cobb and Sanjay Lumpkin. Lewis dropped an average of 80.5 points in exhibition matchups against DePaul and Loyola — two very capable in-state programs.
On Wednesday, though, the Flyers struggled in dealing with NU's size advantage. And unfortunately for them, the Wildcats applied an impressive five-man effort. When the offense stalled, defense kept NU in line.
"I didn't expect us to have a finished product," Collins said. "I just wanted them to play their tails off."
And so they did, through the entire lineup. Redshirt senior Nikola Cerina put forth what was perhaps the team's best defensive effort. In addition to his seven defensive rebounds, he made several impressive rotations as the "help" man — drawing unsolicited praise from his coach.
"Niko is the unsung hero," Collins said.
There's your message.
Collins insisted the ‘Cats will "settle down" offensively, though they might not reach expected potential without perimeter threats. The starting lineup includes one average long-range shooter (Sobolewski) and one above-average shooter in a different, more post-centric role (Crawford). Without their trademark three-point skill, the Wildcats might be forced to improve their collective defensive effort. And they might have the ideal personnel.
Want to hear great perimeter defense? Lewis never made a three-pointer. They also failed to move the ball with any success, tallying six assists on 18 made field goals.
Everything, of course, comes with the caveat: "It's an exhibition."
Still, it's not ridiculous to point out the defensive focus of this Northwestern team — one that could, gasp, define the trajectory of its season.