Wildcats find pride in blue-collar play

Chris Collins will eventually install an up-tempo offense, but right now, Northwestern is exceeding expectations with grind-it-out defense.

We didn't think Sunday's win over then-No. 23 Illinois said much. We figured no team would miss that many close looks against the Wildcats again, and it was unlikely that NU would stay competitive while failing to crack 50 points.

Then, the Cats went toe-to-toe with No. 4 Michigan State, and held one of the Big Ten's most dominant offenses to under 40 percent shooting. Reputation and momentum aren't solidified by any two-game homestand, but Northwestern seemed on the verge of progress after Wednesday.

Now, the Wildcats have beaten Indiana for the first time since 2011. Now, the season that was deemed a washout before the opening tip is starting to find meaning. Chris Collins inherited mismatched parts this fall, and after a period of trial and error during the nonconference season, he's adjusted strategy on both ends of the floor.

What we've seen in the past three games, and what we're hopefully left with for the rest of the year, is a sharp defensive team that doesn't play to the strengths of Drew Crawford or Dave Sobolewski, the once-assumed leaders of Collins' inaugural campaign. With the former struggling and the latter inactive, Northwestern still won two of its last three and held it together against conference opponents.

The players we've been waiting to see make the jump are starting to make it; it just doesn't look consistently pretty. Alex Olah is fitting the system on the post. Tre Demps exploded as the top scoring option Saturday. And though his stat line has been quiet, Sanjay Lumpkin became the defensive anchor the Wildcats have lacked for years.

"Sanjay's just a freshman right now. Gary Harris was coming at him 100 miles an hour, and he took a charge. He's all over the boards at 6-5," Collins said Wednesday. "Sanjay's a warrior, and he's only going to get better. He's a big part of our future...One day he's going to be a tremendous leader, a tremendous captain. He's everything this program is about."

A few years ago, Lumpkin would not have been everything the program is about. That would have been Drew Crawford, a player known for speed and shooting more than defense and dirty work. But Collins, already installing a new culture, is making yet another tangible change to Northwestern. He's bringing a sense of hustle seldom seen in 2012-13. Lumpkin, Olah and Demps have all admirably transitioned to match Collins' intensity.

The slow, grind-it-out game still won't make NU all that competitive this season, and it likely won't last to this extent beyond this winter, when the athletic Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law arrive. But for right now, a hard-nosed Northwestern is at least watchable, and it's making steady progress in a conference marked by toughness.

No Duke mimicry. Northwestern's carving out its own identity.

"It was the best defense I've seen here for quite some time," Tom Izzo said Wednesday. "Give Chris [Collins] credit, he continues to push his guys. I thought they played as hard as anybody we've played."

The high-powered offense we expect to see under Collins will eventually come, but nobody expected to see defense like this, in part because Northwestern hasn't had one like it in more than a half-decade. We discounted this season before it even began, but if the Wildcats can use the first step in rebuilding to build a statement defense, then Collins' tenure has begun about as well as realistically possible.

The team met after last Thursday's drubbing in Iowa, and adjusted its mindset to play a defense-first game. It's working, and with patience, we'll see that pay dividends. One game after knocking off then-No. 3 Wisconsin, the Hoosiers were held under 50 points for the first time all season, and stumbled to an anemic 25 percent from the floor. One painstaking defensive battle was coincidence. Two could start a streak. But three straight outings like this has Northwestern ready to turn a corner faster than we could have imagined. It doesn't look the way any of us thought it would, and the team itself has adjusted admirably.

"We need to take pride in being a blue-collar defensive team. We don't have the offensive firepower right now. But our defense will be consistent," Crawford vowed. "We're on the verge of something good. The past couple games we've really played our butts off.

"We're going somewhere."

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