Luke DeCock

DeCock: At Northwestern, Collins following his own course

Northwestern's head coach Chris Collins encourages his team during the first half of N.C. State's game against Northwestern Wednesday, December 4, 2013, at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.
Northwestern's head coach Chris Collins encourages his team during the first half of N.C. State's game against Northwestern Wednesday, December 4, 2013, at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.

Northwestern went to a zone early and often Wednesday night, a clear sign there’s no point in scrutinizing the team too closely for signs of the Duke influence. Chris Collins might have worked for Mike Krzyzewski, but he’s going his own way as a head coach.

Collins’ last visit to this building as a Duke assistant coach ended with N.C. State fans storming the court to celebrate an 84-76 upset of the Blue Devils. Eleven months later, back at PNC Arena, Collins was on his own as the coach at Northwestern. This time, he got a standing ovation -- after he was hit with a second-half technical foul -- as his new team lost 69-48.

“I have been disowned, by Coach K, for playing so much zone,” Collins joked afterward. “I’m kicked out of the family for that. Look, we have to play some zone.”

In so many ways, this was a return to familiar territory for Collins, a place where he spent two decades as a Duke player and coach. (He noticed, as other recent opponents likely had not, that the visiting locker room had been moved to a less accommodating spot.) Everything else about his experience at Northwestern is new, zone defense included.

It should also be noted that Collins is part of more than one coaching tree, not only Krzyzewski’s but his father Doug’s, an iconoclastic and successful coach in his own right. Collins have learned how to build the structure of a program from Krzyzewski, but he also learned to structure his team around his personnel, the vast majority of which was recruited to play in Bill Carmody’s Princeton-style offense.

“I’m nine games in,” Collins said. “I have a lot to learn, there’s no question about it. The only way you learn is through experiences. You figure it out. I’ve always felt this way, with coaching, you have to take the group that you’re given and try to make the most out of it. Try to make them be the best unit the can be. Tonight, I didn’t do a good job of that.”

In many ways, what Collins is trying to accomplish at Northwestern is similar to what was in the process of being accomplished on campus at Duke before he left, only on the football field and by a veteran coach instead of someone making his head-coaching debut.

There are concrete similarities: A lack of a winning tradition and recent success, in a conference with some of the most powerful programs in the country in an area that should lend itself to recruiting success but typically has not.

David Cutcliffe has built the Duke football program based on sound principles and recruiting North Carolina; there’s no reason Collins can’t do the same thing in Evanston, Ill., by mining the limitless talent in the Chicago suburbs that currently ends up going across the country in a sort of basketball diaspora of the driveway game.

“It’s incredible, amazing what he’s done,” Collins said. “Certainly he’s a role model for me as I take this on, because there’s a lot of potential. I’m at a great school with a commitment from people who want to win. Everybody’s on the same page. It’s just going to take some time. That’s going to be, for me, the hardest part. As a competitor you want to fight every night.”

Having grown up only a few suburbs away, Collins implicitly understands the positives and the negatives of the basketball situation. There’s a learning curve on the bench, but no learning curve with the school, which may be the most challenging part of this particular job.