Collins prepared for strong start

PurpleWildcats.com previews Northwestern versus Eastern Illinois.

This week, in your sudden basketball enthusiasm, you might have opened the ol' laptop only to realize that some stunning upset was underway.

I sat on Twitter for several minutes, enthralled by Northern Kentucky's near victory over Purdue — still the Big Ten's most overrated team.

On paper, none of these games figure to be challenges for the favorite. That applies to tomorrow, when Northwestern opens its regular season against Eastern Illinois.

Despite their relative inexperience and lack of depth, the Wildcats should cruise through much of the non-conference schedule by sheer strength.

This is officially Chris Collins' first game as head coach, though, and he's overseeing a team that played with strong effort in an exhibition matchup with Lewis on Wednesday.

"You want to be ready, to be at your best when the game starts and I know we're going to play hard," Collins said on Friday. "I just want us to relax a little bit, settle down and play good basketball."

The "settle down" part was more difficult for NU, which seems fair given that two players made their college debut and two others (Jershon Cobb, suspension; Drew Crawford, torn labrum) returned from involuntary redshirts. The Wildcats shot only 36 percent for the game, finally gaining rhythm in the closing minutes.

The energy appeared to remain constant for 40 minutes, which led to an impressive defensive effort. Some players in particular, like Sanjay Lumpkin and Nikola Cerina, stood out in that regard.

"We've had a heavy emphasis on defense," Collins said. "And to see the guys go out there and to lock in, and to go out there and win a game even when we didn't shoot well… It's a testament to our defense."

The opener presents an actual challenge. Eastern Illinois returns three of its top four scorers from last year, including senior forward Sherman Blanford. The Philadelphia native averaged 10.5 points and 6.4 rebounds in the 2012-13 season, and figures to challenge NU on the interior.

He's joined by versatile 6'8 forward Josh Piper–who shot nearly 39 percent from behind the arc–and shooting guard Alex Austin. The team did struggle in the Ohio Valley conference, though, winning just 11 games all of last season.

But basketball is volatile, Collins knows. His work will be reflected in the team's effort on opening night, the start of what should be an interesting campaign.

"We're going to have to play well to beat them," Collins said. "There's no one on our schedule that we're just going to show up [against] and win.

"We have to play well to win the game, and we're going to respect everybody we play."


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