On the eve of the Big Ten basketball opener, Northwestern coach Chris Collins was playing the blame game.
And he was pointing the finger at himself.
Before the disappointing Wildcats (4-3) went through a practice at Blomquist Recreation Center on the NU campus Thursday afternoon, Collins was hardly in panic mode. But the fifth-year coach didn’t try to hide from a disappointing nonconference showing as his team got ready for Friday night’s Big Ten opener against Illinois at the Allstate Arena.
“It’s starts with me, and the guys know the person I’m most critical on at all times is myself,” Collins said. “Me and my staff have to do a better job with these guys, preparing them for the games, getting their habits right.”
The Wildcats haven’t had much prep time since the season opened on Nov. 10 with a narrow 79-75 victory over Loyola (Maryland) at Allstate, NU’s home court this season.
Northwestern came out of the gates with five games in 10 days, but Collins said the early bumps could have been smoothed out before the opening tip.
“For a lot of us, we feel like we didn’t approach the preseason the way that we should have,” Collins said. “And I say we, I’m not saying them. The way I coach the guys, the way we work. We didn’t approach it the way we should have to get ready for the season. We’ve had to learn a couple of hard lessons from that.”
The hardest one came Nov. 19, when the Wildcats were obliterated by Texas Tech 85-49 in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament in Uncasville, Connecticut.
“When you lose a game like that you have to really look in the mirror and look at yourself and say, ‘OK, what are we all doing that is leading to something like that?’ ” Collins said. “These guys are great guys; they have total belief in what we’re doing, in us. We just wanted to go back to the basics.”
Knocked out of the Top 25 after the Texas Tech loss, NU did bounce back with a lopsided 81-50 victory over Sacred Heart before losing a tough 52-51 road decision to Georgia Tech on Tuesday night.
“I think what we all realize is we have to get back to work; we have to all rededicate ourselves,” Collins said. “That’s the only way you find it. It doesn’t just magically appear. You’ve got to get back in practice and work on your weaknesses; you have to find that cohesiveness.
“We’ve had a great week, and that was what was so disappointing about Georgia Tech.”
Returning four starters — guards Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey, forward Vic Law and center Derek Pardon — from last year’s historic NCAA Tournament team put the Wildcats in the upper tier of this season’s Big Ten teams.
Surprisingly, they still are trying to climb the ladder.
“You know you have a veteran team; you know you have a lot of guys that have been around,” Collins said. “I just think we all kind of got away from redeveloping the habits, and I talk about it all the time. When you start a season, every season is new and every season is different. You have to go back to square one, even if you have a lot of guys back.
“I think we all just kind of assumed, we have a lot of veterans back, four returning starters, that those same habits, that same togetherness, that same cohesiveness that we had was just going to be there because it’s been there.
“We didn’t take the time with our drills, with the habits day to day, to kind of relearn those things. We’re doing it now.”
Returning from Atlanta after losing to Georgia Tech at the buzzer, Northwestern is expecting another tough test against Illinois, which is 6-1 under first-year coach Brad Underwood.
“I’ve been very impressed with Illinois,” Collins said. “I have great respect for coach Underwood, I always have everywhere he’s been. His team’s are hard-nosed, they play hard, they’re difficult to play against, they have a unique style on both ends of the floor.
“I’ve been impressed with how they’re playing. They come at you in waves. Their pressure defense is a factor, you have to take care of the ball.
“Guys have really stepped up; (junior guard) Aaron Jordan is playing great for them. They have a number of guards where they can rotate guys and hit you with a lot of athletes.
“We know what’s ahead of us. They’ve played very well. Any time you play Illinois, it’s going to be a high-level game. It’s going to be both teams playing really hard. And now that you have them being the first conference game of the year, there’s even more on it because everybody wants to get off to a great start.”