Men’s Basketball: Notes from Big Ten Media Day

Jesse Kramer, Reporter

Big Ten Media Day is just one more sign that the Northwestern basketball season is inching closer. The season opener against Houston Baptist is not for another four weeks, but coach Chris Collins is starting to get a better idea of what his Wildcats will bring to the table this season.

Collins and redshirt junior guard Tre Demps were at Big Ten Media Day. Here are some of the takeaways.

— NU was tabbed 13th in the Big Ten preseason poll, ahead of only Rutgers. Demps thinks the Cats can exceed those expectations.

“There’s no reason we can’t do what Nebraska did last year,” Demps said of the Cornhuskers, who were picked to finish last and wound up finishing fourth in the Big Ten and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since in 16 years. “I think we have a lot of great pieces. We have guys who can shoot the ball, guys with athleticism that we haven’t had in a while.”

— NU limped to a 7-6 non-conference record last year. Their slate this fall is not as tough and should lead to some more easy wins before Big Ten play begins.

“We didn’t play as well last year in November and December, and we didn’t figure out who we had and what we were until the conference started,” Collins said. “Then I felt we became a pretty good team. It’s going to be important for us to get off to a good start and hopefully see our young guys get some early wins so they can come in to the conference with some confidence.”

— Collins has a full year under his belt now as a head coach, and he is still open to learning how to be a better coach whenever possible.

“You never have all the answers,” Collins said. “The best coaches in the world are always open to learning new things and getting new ideas, being flexible as the game evolves. I always surround myself with really good coaches and really good basketball minds that you can learn from. That’s not going to stop for me because it’s been great for me, throughout my career.”

— Collins has acknowledged many times that his freshman class is a talented group. But he has also stressed the team’s success will be dependent on the returning veterans.

“Of the 12 guys we have on our team, six of them are newcomers, so it’s literally a fresh start,” Collins said. “That being said, I’ve been really pleased with the development and leadership of our returning guys, and although a lot has been talked about our incoming freshman class, I think when you play in a conference like the Big Ten, the most important guys are those guys that have been through it and can show the way for young players.”

— Freshman forward Vic Law is the centerpiece of Collins’ incoming class. Law is going to be a big piece of what NU does on both ends of the floor, but Collins wants to make sure the freshman to not feel too much pressure.

“Vic is going to have a big role on our team,” Collins said. “Although I don’t want him to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders that he has to be the savior because that’s not the case. He’s going to be in a position right away to out there and play but also learn. There’s not a freshman in America that doesn’t have a transition from high school to college.”

— With six newcomers on the roster, getting them to gel with the returning Wildcats was a priority for Collins, and it’s been working.

“The guys have good chemistry,” Collins said. “Any time you have that many new players, as a coach you always worry about how the pieces are going to fit together. The guys are coming together. Their practices have been spirited. We’re just excited to kind of get out there and get going.”

— Although NU returns four starters, the losses of Drew Crawford’s 15.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game are big.

“Drew was kind of our Mr. Everything, not only with what he brought on the floor, but his leadership and what he did off the floor,” Collins said. “Certainly you take Drew’s production out of there. We need some guys to step up, and I think it’s going to have to be a collective effort.”

— Demps is one of those guys that could help fill Crawford’s place. Demps made improvements between his freshman and sophomore seasons, but his efficiency remained an issue, shooting just 38.3 percent from the field. He said making his game more efficient was one of his top priorities this offseason.

“Every time I’m playing, I want to shoot a good percentage,” Demps said. “I have a goal for every practice — I want to shoot above 50 percent. I think I’ve done a better job with that. Just watching tape with coaches, I kind of know better where I can pick my spots.”

— One area where Demps excelled last season was in late-game situations. It started with three straight 3-pointers late in the second half of the Cats’ upset of 23rd-ranked Illinois and continued through the team’s Big Ten Tournament win against Iowa, when he drilled a go-ahead trey with 7:59 left and then another jumper in the final minute.

“Growing up me and my dad always played one-on-one together,” Demps said. “At the end of the game, that’s kind of what basketball is. You make a play. At that point in the game, the other team kind of knows the play. Usually at the end of a game, you’re not getting backdoors or easy buckets. You’ve got to get something a little bit tougher. And growing up, working with my dad, that’s what we did a lot. I’m just comfortable in that situation because we worked on it for so many years.”

— Although Demps was second on the team in minutes played last season, he came off the bench in all but six games. As of now, the plan is for Demps to continue serving as the Cats’ sixth man.

“I love it,” Demps said of the role. “I think it takes a certain type of player to embrace that kind of role. The trust that Coach Collins and I have. We know that at the end of the game he’s going to trust me as long as I keep doing the things that I need to do. … As a sixth man, I try to look up to (NBA veteran) Jason Terry. I really admire the way he brings a spark, just the energy he brings every day.”

— Demps commented on how he enjoys the offensive freedom of Collins’ system.

“As long as you take a good shot, Coach is happy,” Demps said. “Coach was a shooter himself. So it’s nice playing for a guy who has a scorer’s mentality. He’s able to relate to us.”

— Another piece of Collins’ system is pushing the ball up the floor. Last year, the Cats didn’t run often because they did not have the personnel to fit that system. They ranked No. 341 in’s adjusted tempo rankings. But this year, the transition game should be more prevalent.

“This year we’re really going to try to push the ball,” Demps said. “Last year, we were a slow-it-down team. We’re going to try to get in transition this year. That’s something we’ve been working on.”

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