Northwestern impressing Big Ten coaches despite poor results

Crean, Izzo among those who appreciate team's defense, effort in Collins' first season

Northwestern has become the darling of Big Ten basketball. Which is odd considering the Wildcats are 1-4 in the conference and their losses have come by an average of 22.5 points.

But Indiana coach Tom Crean threw kisses at first-year coach Chris Collins and assistant Brian James on Thursday, tweeting: "NW is doing some outstanding things. You can see why Chris Collins is a tremendous coach. Doug Collins, Duke, USA BB, Brian James and Europe."

And Michigan State's Tom Izzo opened his postgame news conference Wednesday by saying the Wildcats played "the best defense I've seen here in a long time."

"This team was a joy to watch," Izzo said. "I wish I could come here to watch them play like that against Michigan. Then I'd feel even better."

Izzo was just getting started.

Asked what he said during the postgame handshake, the veteran of six Final Fours responded: "I told Chris: 'I'm proud of you, man. You kicked our butt defensively. You played harder than us. If you keep doing that, your offense is going to come. Get a foundation.'

"That's what Bobby Knight told me one time, and things worked out for me."

Izzo also lavished praise on Drew Crawford, calling the fifth-year senior swingman "a tough guy who works his butt off."

"He could have left," Izzo said, "but he stayed and he will help this team and this program turn."

Coaches sometimes see a different game than fans and media do. They see effort. They appreciate a defense that had a role in Michigan State firing six air balls.

We focus mostly on offense and whether games are aesthetically pleasing. We note that Crawford is 3-for-16 in his last two games and that the Wildcats have, according to KenPom.com, the least efficient offense of any major-conference team.

Izzo said the switch from Bill Carmody's Princeton attack, with its ball handoffs and backdoor cuts, to any new style is like "going from the wishbone to a pro set."

"They are running a system that is apples to oranges," Izzo said. "It's not easy to do, but it's what (Collins) should do because it's the way he is going to play. Along the way, he is going to win some games because they remind me of some of my early teams. They check you and they are tough. If I didn't have to coach against them, I'd applaud them."

Even after his team shot 28.3 percent in its 54-40 loss to Michigan State, Collins said he "could not be prouder of how our guys played."

"All I ask of them are to compete on every possession and to put their hearts on the floor," he said. "Whatever the results are, we will live with them."

Collins also said he'll strive to get more rest for starters Crawford, JerShon Cobb and Alex Olah, who played 118 of a possible 120 minutes. And he said of Crawford's recent shooting woes, "It's my job to help him."

Asked what it will take for Northwestern to become a consistent winner, Izzo replied: "I've watched Notre Dame, Duke, Stanford, these academic schools. Some give a little more than others. They are not going to drop their standards and shouldn't. But sometimes (the standards) get so hard that it's hard to compete with everyone else.

"No. 2, put some money in (to improving facilities). When they put more money into our program, recruiting became better and players feel better (because of nicer) locker rooms and practice facilities. It's an arms race, and (Northwestern) needs to be on a level playing field — or somewhat level. They have a young guy who has the academic background, the Chicago background. He's going to get some kids. He already has one top-100 kid (Vic Law). That was a big, big get for them."

The Tribune reported in November that NU officials plan to enhance Welsh-Ryan Arena, which has been neglected since a 1984 renovation.

The much-maligned purple-stained court will be scrapped after the season, and officials are waiting for board of trustees approval to add a video scoreboard and more purple-cushioned chair backs.

"When we came in here the last couple of years, I felt like it was three-fourths us," Izzo said. "They are starting to get more Northwestern fans in here. If they get to the point where it's 75-25 or better, this little place is going to hop.

"I remember when we were going from 11,000 to 15,000 in our arena, (visiting) the fraternities and dorms, acting like a Division II (coach) … come to think of it, I had a hell of a lot more fun than I'm having now."

tgreenstein@tribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

CHICAGO

More