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College Hoops Insider: Northwestern men get back on track in Big Ten

| Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, 10:32 p.m.
Northwestern coach Chris Collins encourages his team during the second half against Indiana on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, in Bloomington, Ind.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari directs his team during the second half of its 87-49 victory over Rober Morris on Sunday, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, in Lexington, Ky.
Arizona's Aaron Gordon celebrates a basket against Arizona State on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in Tucson, Ariz.

Northwestern took some early lumps in the Big Ten, dropping its first three league games by an average of 25.3 points.

First-year coach Chris Collins didn't care that Wisconsin and Iowa were ranked or that Michigan played in last year's national championship game.

Collins focused on how his Wildcats played in those losses.

Impressive rebound wins against Illinois and Indiana sandwiched around a loss against Michigan State removed Northwestern from the critical list. Tuesday's game at Purdue will tell Collins a lot more about his team.

“I'm pleased with the way the team's progressing,” said Collins, son of former NBA coach and player and longtime TV announcer Doug Collins. “We played really hard, which is our identity at the defensive end, and the guys embraced it.”

After yielding an average of 81 points in its first three league games, Northwestern held opponents to an average of 48 points in the next three contests. Michigan State's 54-40 victory over Northwestern on Jan. 15 featured the Spartans' lowest point total this season.

“We got hammered our first three games in the league, and I felt that in our fourth one against Illinois that our guys were really hungry, and we've carried that out for three games,” Collins said Monday. “If we don't play that way — if we don't play scrappy, we don't play tough, if we're not emotionally invested — then we have no chance to win against any of those teams.

“You always have to talk to your team about being able to handle success, just as you have to handle failure. You have to have the same kind of hunger after a big win that you do after someone hammers you.”

Highs and lows

What's good for Northwestern also could apply at Wisconsin and Iowa State. Those teams opened the season a combined 30-0 but are a combined 0-5 since.

Wisconsin attempts to end its two-game losing streak Wednesday at Minnesota. Iowa State, loser of three straight, returns to action Saturday at home against Kansas State.

“Most of these guys, when they were in high school, they played on teams that had won 12 straight, 20 straight. Yours truly, senior year we were 25‑0 until we were 25‑1,” said veteran Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, who opened this season 16-0. “I don't remember anything other than just the coach I played for getting us ready for the next team we were playing. A few teams that I've been fortunate enough to coach did that, and I just kept trying to get them ready for the next one.

“So what other people are doing, I have no idea. But, yeah, I know the thing about the target. Just look around the country. It's conference time. Anything can happen. Our guys know it. They're not practicing any different now than they did a month ago. I can tell you that.”

Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said his practices this week will concentrate on shooting. The Cyclones shot less than 40 percent in their last two defeats.

“We will take a lot of shots this week,” said Hoiberg, whose team opened 14-0. “We'll get a lot of shots up, try to fine-tune what we do at the offensive end.”


Who says Kentucky coach John Calipari is all business all the time?

After the Wildcats' 74-66 victory over Tennessee — a game in which Calipari's normally poor foul-shooting team went 23 of 24 (95.8 percent) from the line — Calipari was asked for an explanation.

Kentucky, after all, is only a 67.2 percent foul-shooting team.

“We did something new in the last two days, and it's something that is unique and something that I don't know if it's ever been done. But we went in the pool, and we put on those pool baskets, and we got them to get down and just start making them for the mental part of it,” Calipari told reporters. “It worked. And if you believe that, I've got great land to sell. I had this whole room. You people ... ”

Arizona's Gordon not typical freshman

Arizona coach Sean Miller appreciates the unselfish attitude of his star freshman, Aaron Gordon.

“We're lucky because Aaron Gordon is such a great kid, and his style of play has very little to do with scoring and shooting that it's easier for us to blend him into a team dynamic,” said Miller, who starred at Pitt and Blackhawk.

Gordon leads top-ranked Arizona in rebounding and is second on the team in scoring. His team-oriented style contrasts with other top freshmen around the country, although Gordon also could leave school early like other talented freshman peers.

“The players that are put in that category are immensely talented and deserve a lot of credit,” Miller said. “Each one of these talented freshmen are a part of something that's much bigger than where their own personal career is going. It puts pressure on the team, it puts pressure on your program and as a coach when good players are overlooked.”

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