Collins with winning start to career

On the start of the Chris Collins era at Northwestern.

At six wins and five losses, Northwestern has not met expectations, because the expectations were wrong. The Wildcats are even less talented than we thought.

At six wins and five losses, Chris Collins has met expectations, even exceeded them, because of several developments that hint at his coaching ceiling.

You can criticize Northwestern's new head coach. It's fine. You can forget that he's trying to legitimize a team with one big man and zero point guards. Or that he's working with an entire group of players he never recruited – and made them believe in his message despite the ugly scoreboards.

It's very easy to pass quick, harsh judgment during the rebuild process, and even easier to defer blame, like: "Oh, well, we won't know until he coaches his own recruits!"

It's also very easy to romanticize Collins' presence – which I did – and guess that his natural skill and confidence would magically make Northwestern basketball good.

That's not it. He is ready. He was ready. It's almost patronizing to say that considering the extent of his readiness. Chris Collins is making the right decisions. Chris Collins is making the team better, already, and the wins will come later.

Jershon Cobb currently averages 13.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. If you'd told me that at any point in his career before now, I would laugh. In his sophomore year, Cobb struggled mightily to recover from an offseason hip injury and never established himself as a third scoring option — much less the second one.

He's not incredibly skilled – no one on this team is – but Collins wisely devised an offense that focuses on his best player. The transformation is incredible. I watched Cobb flounder in person so many times during that fateful 2011-12 season, never expecting him to be anything but the eight- or nine-point guy who occupied a starter's role. And here he's proven me wrong.

Collins brings in a series of highly touted recruits including Vic Law and Bryant McIntosh. He'll need to maximize their talent and develop them as players — sort of like he's doing right now.

Okay, here's another thing: Northwestern is outrebounding its opponents. I don't care if they played Gardner-Webb 30 times. That's stunning given the available personnel. Stunning. How does that happen? Mentality.

"How are you going to rebound?" I asked something along those lines after the team's scrimmage on Oct. 5. He gave some answer that I didn't accept – because I didn't believe it – about the team rebounding concept with oversized guards stepping in to grab boards.

Oh yeah. It worked. He put ownership on Drew Crawford to use his strength and pound the defensive glass. He placed Sanjay Lumpkin – still underrated – in the most difficult role, making him guard most opposing power forwards. Both have been superb rebounders given the circumstances, with Cobb more than doubling his average from 2011-12.

Even better, though, there's this sense of accountability. He wisely benched Dave Sobolewski for James Montgomery III when his "starting" point guard labored through an awful slump. And although I'm sure he goes to sleep thinking about the days when he'll have a legit team, he's willing to change it up and try.

I'm not judging the wins and losses. Not yet. They hardly reflect a coach in full control through 11 games. He's fostered openness, leading to that well-publicized meeting with Kale Abrahamson. He's already helped to develop one player. He's figuring out what works and what does not.

Six and five or nine and two, the actions matter more.

I'm thrilled by the beginning of the Chris Collins era. We're not getting any wins now, but I'm more and more confident those will arrive later.


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